By Mike Elk
At a time of year when many workers are taking family vacations, uranium workers at Honeywell’s plant in Metropolis, Ill. won’t have that option. On July 27, the company announced a vacation freeze. United Steelworkers Local 7-669, which represents workers at the plant, claims that the decision is just another salvo in a three-year-long battle by Honeywell to bust the union.
Honeywell is currently in the process of rehiring several hundred operations workers at the uranium plant who were laid off in July of 2012 when the plant shut down for earthquake-safety improvements requested by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Earlier this year, Honeywell began slowly rehiring the laid-off workers—both hourly union employees and non-union salary employees—to restart the plant. Now all but 21 of the 200 union employees have been rehired as the plant moves toward full operationality. But instead of rehiring the final 21 union workers, Honeywell is proceeding short-staffed and calling in workers on their days off to make up the gap.
In order to put pressure on the company to rehire the 21 laid-off union members, some union employees are refusing to work any overtime (and passing up the time-and-half pay). In response, Honeywell announced that because of the staffing shortage, no workers can take a vacation this summer.
In a July 27, 2013 email to employees, Honeywell Metropolis Operating Manager Jim Pritchett wrote:
Effective immediately, all vacations are cancelled and no further vacations are to be granted in operations including individuals’ days—that includes all hourly and salaried staff. The purpose is to assure we are staffed to support operations and to continue to get the remaining units on line so we can support our customers. … I am disappointed it has gotten to this but we have no choice due to employees not responding to call ins and taking care of their responsibilities…. This vacation freeze will be lifted as soon as the business needs of the plant are being effectively met by people coming when they are called.
The union speculates that Honeywell has an ulterior motive for not hiring the remaining 21 workers: It doesn’t want to rehire Local 7-669 President Stephen Lech. Under the union contract, Honeywell is obligated to rehire all of the laid-off union employees according to a mutually agreed upon list developed according to workers’ qualifications and seniority. The next person on the list is Lech.
“It’s directly targeting me for my work as union president,” says Lech, who thinks that Honeywell is trying to send a message about the length that the company is willing to go to crush the union.
The union says that instead of following the list, Honeywell has told the final 21 workers that they must compete against outside applicants and reapply for their jobs as if they were new hires directly off the street.
“It’s a violation of the contract,” Lech says. “How can Honeywell do it? Well, Honeywell does whatever they want.”
“It will take six months before the case even gets before an arbitrator and another six months before the arbitrator rules,” he says.
Workers are refusing overtime in the hopes that they can resolve the issue sooner. Many were planning family vacations and were outraged by the vacation moratorium.
“It’s a morally bankrupt company that punishes their employees for staffing shortages it created out of spite,” reads a text message to Working In These Times by one Honeywell employee who wished to remain anonymous for fear of being fired. “Two years ago we took their lousy contract and they’re still kicking us.”
Honeywell did not respond to request for comment for this piece.
Lech says that despite being laid off, he is undeterred from his work for the union.
“This absolutely will not stop me from doing my job,” says Lech. “Heck, I got more time than ever to work as union president.”
Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times,where this post first appeared, He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.