In another sad twist in the long story of workers’ struggles at the Honeywell uranium conversion plant in Metropolis, Ill., Honeywell announced Thursday that it will temporarily lay off 228 people — 125 union hourly workers and 103 non-union salary workers— while it shuts down the plant to perform safety upgrades. A skeleton workforce of 106 employees — union and non-union — will continue working at the plant. The union expects Honeywell to shut down the plant for approximately 12 – 15 months while it makes the upgrades.
The shutdown comes after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) found several problems concerning the lack of safety measures in place to prevent the release of toxic UF6 gas in the case of a natural disaster. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the NRC is requiring that plants have adequate seismic protection against tornados and earthquakes; currently, the NRC feels that the Metropolis plant is not up to par, and has ordered that the plant be shut down until the NRC feels it is safe to be operated.
“Honeywell takes its commitment to safety seriously,” plant manager Larry Smith told the Southern in a statement. “We are continuing to discuss the necessary upgrades with the NRC, and we hope to quickly establish a definitive timetable.”
The layoffs could have a devastating effect on the union, especially since many union members were laid off indefinitely back in May, when Honeywell temporarily shut down the plant to investigate claims of sabotage by union workers. While the workers laid off this week retain the right to recall once the plant reopens, many of them are beginning to look for jobs at other plants and several have already been successful. If these workers choose not to return to the Honeywell plant when it reopens, the union may ultimately be weakened.
Some workers fear that the possibility of a weakened union, as well as the opportunity to wait out a market that has seen uranium prices plummet 23% since February 2011, may give Honeywell some incentive to keep the workers out for longer than necessary. Furthermore, by stopping their supply of uranium, Honeywell may be able to create a shortage and drive up the price of uranium.
“It’s a win-win for Honeywell,” says Honeywell union worker John Paul Smith. “They cut their workforce in half and wait out the free fall of uranium prices.”
The union is currently in talks with Honeywell about how the layoffs will affect workers and which workers will be laid off. Pay will continue for the Honeywell workers through September 21 and health care will end on September 30. Some employees may have the opportunity to transfer to other facilities. For the union workers at Metropolis facility, these layoffs are yet another obstacle that they will have to overcome in their efforts to keep their union alive.