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Locked-out Honeywell Workers Ok Contract

Jim Suhr
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ST. LOUIS (AP) __ Locked-out Honeywell workers at a southern Illinois plant that helps make nuclear fuel agreed Tuesday to a three-year contract, ending a labor dispute that festered for more than a year in the otherwise tranquil confines of Superman’s adoptive hometown.

The ratification of the deal reached about two weeks ago does not mean the roughly 230 union-backed workers in Metropolis will return immediately to their Honeywell jobs at the nation’s only site that begins refining uranium for eventual use in nuclear power plants. Under Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules, the hourly workers must first be retrained and recertified, given that the plant’s processes have been upgraded since the work stoppage began.

The actual vote total was not immediately available. Under the contract, workers retain job seniority Honeywell had sought to eliminate but will get no pay increase in the first year and pay a greater portion of medical insurance costs.

Honeywell International Inc. said in a statement that it believed the “fair and equitable agreement” would help ensure the economic viability of the plant, which the company said has lost more than $100 million over the past decade.

John Paul Smith, a spokesman for the United Steelworkers local,  said union members “are happy to return to a regular life and will move forward together.”

Retraining would begin Aug. 15 and last about two weeks, with expectations that all of the affected workers might be at their posts perhaps by the end of next month, Smith said. Until then, temporary workers who have been filling in for the locked-out workers will remain, Honeywell said.

“Safety will remain our No. 1 priority, and the need to operate safely at all times will drive our decision-making on how we train, recertify and transition the workforce,” the company said. Smith estimated a couple dozen of the workers locked out of the plant since June of last year will not return, opting instead to keep other jobs they’ve found during the labor strife.

The deal calls for a 1 percent pay boost in the second year and a 2 percent raise in the contract’s final year. The hike in medical insurance costs is consistent with what the Metropolis plant’s non-union workers and Honeywell’s union-backed employees elsewhere pay, the company said.

Honeywell added that newly hired employees will be placed in a different pension plan with benefits comparable to those at other Honeywell sites. And future union retirees still will have access to group health benefits through Honeywell, though the company contribution toward those benefits will end when the new contract expires in 2014.

The plant’s newly resolved labor troubles dated to the spring of last year, when efforts to negotiate a new contract at the plant broke down. Honeywell opted not to let the union employees work without a contract, citing the lack of bargaining progress and what it called the union’s refusal to agree to provide 24 hours of notice before any strike.

The protracted lockout squeezed many businesses in the cheery 6,500-resident tourist town along the Ohio River that enthusiastically claimed Superman decades ago as its favorite son
and depends on the uranium-related jobs as much as kryptonite. The mayor and businesses complained that the temporary workers Honeywell shipped in and housed tended to send their money home while locked-out workers tightened their purse strings.

Despite the whimsical image Metropolis has created for the outside world, its identity as a uranium conversion site runs deeper. The plant now run by Honeywell was built in 1949, and with a normal workforce of 400, it is still the second-biggest employer in town, after a riverfront casino. The average union worker’s salary of $62,000 is an enviable sum in the area.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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