Beleaguered Honeywell Workers Cautiously Optimistic As Arbitrator Sides With Union

Mike Elk

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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