USW and Honeywell's Battlefield: A Uranium Conversion Plant

The battle between corporations/governments and unions, from state pensions to auto companies’ legacy costs, has been distilled for the metals world with the ongoing negotiations or lack thereof between Honeywell, the energy and technology giant, and the United Steelworkers Union (USW). Honeywell and the USE have clashed over Honeywell’s uranium processing plant in Metropolis, Ill., the only of its kind in the US, according to a New York Times article.

About 230 USW workers have been on lockout since June 28, 2010, and are still picketing Honeywell over safety and seniority issues, according to a recent press release. On Monday, USW local 7-669, representing workers from the Metropolis plant, and UNITE, which represents Honeywell’s nuclear workers in the UK, staged a demonstration in Morristown, N.J., ahead of a Honeywell shareholders meeting to make their position heard. This is the latest in long tussle between the company and union workers, the focus of which is the potential danger that uranium conversion poses to workers.

“We deal with hydrofluoric acid, said Darrell Lillie, president of United Steelworkers Local 7-669, quoted last August in the Times. “We make fluorine. This is bad stuff. The least we feel like we could have is good medical benefits when we retire. (The article specified that the plant converts milled uranium into uranium hexafluoride UF6.)

Alternately, Honeywell maintains that the workers are failing to understand that the company would be incurring large losses, to the tune of $20 million in 2010. “Unfortunately, the union has demonstrated very little desire to reach a mutually beneficial and workable agreement that acknowledges the economic realities of the plant, Peter Dalpe, a spokesman for Honeywell, told the Times.

The last time the two sides sat down together was April 19 and 20, and according to this USW local’s website, not much happened: “There was a tentative agreement made on job bidding and movement. There were discussions about seniority, which according to [Honeywell’s] web site was agreed upon during the last sessions.  Talks today moved very slowly¦

A crux of the negotiations is retirement compensation in the form of health benefits to offset the dangerous work uranium conversion and fluoride production requires. Workers contend that the plant’s toxic processes cause cancer. They’ve erected white crosses in the plant’s shadow that represent those workers that have died, and others who are suffering. Members of the EPA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have been investigating how Honeywell gets rid of their sludge, which was the major point of contention that sparked safety alerts. An NRC spokesman said that the on-site regulators monitoring the plant were satisfied that all requirements were being met.

Clearly, this issue represents a conundrum between plant owners/operators and union workers, mostly to the point of providing workers with an adequately safe environment. The union should absolutely have the right to lobby for workers’ safety, but when the retirees and other hastily trained replacements from Louisiana who are coming in as “scab workers could potentially cause more harm to plant safety operations, as has been reported, we could have a much larger problem at hand.

Where exactly should the balance between dangerous work and fair compensation lie? And how can we possibly get to the bottom of proving whether companies’ practices directly cause cancer? Tell us your thoughts.

–Taras Berezowsky

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