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Working In These Times

Thursday, Aug 22, 2013, 4:49 pm

Beleaguered Honeywell Workers Cautiously Optimistic As Arbitrator Sides With Union

BY Mike Elk

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A locked out Honeywell worker from Metropolis, Ill. at a pro-union rally in Madison, Wis., in February 2011. (United Steelworkers / Flickr / Creative Commons)  

Over the past three years, I have spent plenty of time with Honeywell uranium plant worker and United Steelworkers Local 7-699 President Stephen Lech. However, I have never seen Lech as excited as he was on Tuesday night.

“Mike, I got big news to tell you,” Lech told me as we sat in the RV that we have been using to travel across the country for the Summer of Solidarity Tour. “We just won a big arbitration case and I think it’s going to start turning things around at the plant.”

Honeywell locked Lech’s union out of its uranium plant from June 2010 to August 2011. After a tough battle, the union thought they had forced the company to agree to language that would give union workers priority treatment when it came to layoffs over scabs, who continued as contractors at the plant after the lockout ended. In practice, however, Honeywell has laid off union workers while contracted non-union workers have continued to operate in the plant.

If the trend continued, Honeywell might ultimately have enough leverage to force the union out of the plant. Union leaders says that by giving contractors preference over union workers in layoffs Honeywell is hurting the union’s ability to enforce its negotiated contract over the long run. The workers already feel bullied by Honeywell’s intense campaign of firing union members that followed the lockout, as well as by the company’s recent denial of summer vacation for all of the employees at its Metropolis, Ill., location in order to avoid rehiring certain union workers.

But on Tuesday an arbitrator ruled that two union workers had been improperly laid off at the plant. The arbitrator explicitly cited the contract’s provision that union workers could not be laid off so that their jobs could be subcontracted out to non-union workers. Lech believes the ruling sets an excellent precedent for a larger arbitration case scheduled for next month. That arbitration challenges Honeywell’s decision to lay off 40 union mechanics while keeping non-union contractor mechanics employed when the plant stopped production for repairs last year. If the union wins that arbitration, Honeywell would have to pay millions of dollars in backpay to the 40 mechanics who were laid off for more than a year. It might also finally force Honeywell to abide by the contract language it initially agreed to.

“This ruling is really going to start turning around for us in the plant,” says Lech. “This is a real victory for us.”

However, Honeywell workers were reminded of how quickly fortunes can change when they met up Tuesday in Chicago with striking Rotek windmill workers from Aurora, Ohio, members of United Steelworkers Local 8565, to protest outside of Rotek’s North American headquarters.

Workers at Rotek had enjoyed comfortable jobs where the average salary was $40,000 a year with excellent medical and retirement benefits. However, the workers have been on strike for nearly 7 months after the company unilaterally imposed a contract on them that would have resulted in an average salary cut of $8,000 a year. Instead of accepting the contract, workers chose to strike. (For more of the background on this strike, read my story from February, “Union Leader Forbids Beer in Battle with Scab Company.”)

“It’s been tough,” says United Steelworkers Local 8565 President Bill Hyslop. “It’s been real tough on families not knowing when they are going to have their jobs back.”

There’s no end in sight to the tough battle that workers have been locked in with a company that has already seen its sales decrease as a result of uncertainty over the long-term continuance of alternative energy credits. What’s more, the workers face the risk of being permanently replaced by Rotek unless the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rules that their strike came about due to unfair labor practices by the company.

The NLRB is considering two unfair labor practice charges that accuse Rotek of failing to hand over key financial documents while asking the workers for concessions. The union is also charging that Rotek unilaterally imposed a concessionary contract before it could prove that it had reached an impasse in bargaining.

Hyslop says linking up with other union workers, who were part of the Summer of Solidarity tour, has been a real boost of morale for his members.

“Anytime you are out a long length of time, it’s tough on people, it’s tough on families. And you think you are out there by yourself and when you realize there are people willing to step up and help you, that’s a morale boost,” says Hyslop. “So it’s a collaborative effort. We got each other’s back. The international has helped us through all of our struggles here.”

Hyslop added that meeting the Honeywell workers, who were locked out longer than the Rotek workers have been thus far, helped give them confidence.

Lech says that while his union may be coming off a big victory in an arbitration case, he is all too aware that the tables could quickly turn. The next round of Honeywell contract negotiations are only a year away and another lockout is a very real possibility.

“I know interacting [with other union workers] helped us deal with the ups and downs,” Lech says. “This is a long fight. There are gonna be a lot of ups and downs in our fights.  We can either accept and react and constantly adjust or we lose. We don’t have a choice. I know how it felt when I was going through [a lockout] and having other people come was a real morale boost. That’s what this tour is all about, folks coming together and realizing that their fights aren’t isolated.”

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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