Locked Out in Metropolis

Honeywell workers learn the high cost of good-paying jobs

The troubles started a few years back, says the big man in the lawn chair,   an umbrella shielding him from the summer sun. His eyes squint as he explains the circumstances that led to his sitting on this barren stretch of highway on the outskirts
of Metropolis, Illinois. As he stares into the distance, in the direction of his union
hall, his words express a Southerner’s fatalism echoed by the drawl of his voice.

He calls his plight a cliché, for it is an old and familiar story in these parts.
Knowing such tales rarely end well, he speaks with resignation beyond his years.
His is a story of haves and have nots, which has been played out in Southern
Illinois for as long as anyone can remember. Metropolis may lay claim to
being the home of the Man of Steel, but the struggles of mere mortals have defined
this place.

Vestiges of those struggles can be seen in the hardscrabble towns that dot the
Shawnee Hills, a topography that connects Appalachia to the Ozark Plateau both
geographically and culturally. For motorists whizzing along Interstates 57
and 24 it is impossible to catch a fleeting glimpse of the dual sense of sadness and
survival that steep these hills and hollows.

But those sentiments can be heard in the tenor of the big man’s voice as surely as
the thunderheads can be seen gathering on the horizon on this scorching August
afternoon.

He says the troubles began when Honeywell International Inc. disbanded his
union’s safety committee. In its place, his employer implemented a program named
“behavioral safety,” a euphemism for a system that blames individual workers for
on-the-job accidents. As a result, plant workers refrained from reporting accidents
out of fear that they would lose their jobs.

The big man furrows his brow, as he describes how the program essentially
helped mask the continuing safety risks inside the plant. Workers’ morale declined
and labor disputes inside the plant accelerated.

The big man compares the work he does – uranium processing – to coal
mining an occupation with a long history in the Southern Illinois. Both are dirty and
fraught with potential safety hazards and chronic health risks. Since coal mining
petered out hereabouts, the nuclear energy

Honeywell plant helps supply processed uranium to the gaseous diffusion plant in
nearby Paducah, which further refines nuclear fuel. The facilities, which are both
radioactively contaminated, are products of the Cold War, built more than 50 years
ago as a part of the nuclear arms race against the former Soviet Union. They
now help supply enriched uranium to the nuclear power industry.

The labor problems peaked earlier this summer, after contract negotiations
between Steelworkers Local 7-669 and Honeywell broke down over the
company’s plan to reduce retiree health benefits and cut the pensions of newly
hired workers.

 On June 28, Honeywell
locked out its 220 union employees. The
company replaced its union workers with
non-union employees supplied by Shaw
Environmental and Infrastructure of Baton
Rouge, Louisiana. Shaw, a billion-dollar
corporation, holds numerous government
contracts with the Department of Energy
and the Department of Defense.

The lockout has had a ripple effect
across the entire nuclear energy industry,
causing the price of uranium companies’
stock to skyrocket. Closer to home, the
lockout is on the brink of sending the
already recession-wracked local economy
into a tailspin. With tempers flaring on
both sides, a once-cohesive community is on the verge of coming apart at the seams. The lockout has pitted management against labor and neighbor against
neighbor. The risks of potential nuclear mishap have raised tensions in the town of 6,500.

It has happened before.

In the early hours of Dec. 22, 2003, the plant inadvertently released seven pounds of uranium hexafluoride (UF-6). The accident prompted the immediate
evacuation of nearby residents. News reports issued at the time said no one was
hurt, but four or five residents were sent to the hospital for observation.

As recently as April, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission held a meeting at
the Massac County Courthouse to discuss the findings of a two-year safety study.
The study was prompted by past radiological and safety hazards inside the
plant. Despite the NRC’s review, the agency has issued repeated exemptions to
Honeywell so it can continue to operate despite the contamination. According to a
recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Honeywell is being
investigated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department for allegedly dumping radioactive sludge at its Metropolis
facility.

Hard times never really left Little Egypt, the name some old- timers still call the
pyramid-shaped area between the two great rivers.

Behind each levee there are countless human tragedies, tales of woe passed
down generations, remembrances of floods and droughts and man-made calamities like the lockout now in progress.

At the steel workers union hall, a member of the local’s negotiating
committee opens the meeting with an invocation. He prays for the sick, and for
all who are now unemployed, asking in Jesus’ name for strength. Across the road,
in front of the plant, the union has erected a memorial. Forty-two crosses symbolize
workers who have died of cancer; 27 smaller crosses represent those who have
so far survived the disease.

Later, in the parking lot, the man who gave the prayer, a 30-year employee at the
plant, says he hopes for a resolution to the labor problems so the men and women of
his union can return to work. He acknowledges that the plant has pockets of
radiation that are dangerous, but expresses no ill will toward the company. His
concern now is for those operating the plant; they’re untrained and, in his view,
unqualified to do the work.

Sitting on the tailgate of a visitor’s car, he nods in the direction of the uranium
plant, and says: “Somebody’s going to get killed.”

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