labor reporter and contributing editor at In These Times magazine.
Dozens of workers protested at Honeywell’s shareholder meeting on Monday, accusing the company of putting employees and the public in danger at its uranium enrichment plant in Metropolis, Illinois. Major U.S. defense contractor, Honeywell, pleaded guilty last month to illegally storing hazardous radioactive waste without a permit. The company kept highly radioactive mud in drums in the open air behind its facility near the Ohio River. Workers at the facility say they notified Honeywell of the problem on many occasions. Many are members of the United Steelworkers union and feel this particular incident led to the company’s desire to bust their union. More than 200 workers at the Metropolis plant have been out of work since last June due to stalled contract negotiations with the company on workplace safety, economic and seniority issues. We speak with labor journalist Mike Elk, who has covered this story extensively for In These Times magazine. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now from the radiation disasters in Chernobyl and Japan to look at how the major U.S. weapons manufacturer, Honeywell, pled guilty last month to illegally storing hazardous radioactive waste without a permit. The company kept highly radioactive mud in drums in the open air behind its uranium enrichment plant in Metropolis, Illinois. According to a former Honeywell environmental safety officer, the toxic waste leaked into the Ohio River, which runs next to the plant.
Workers at the facility say they notified Honeywell of the problem on many occasions. Many are members of the United Steelworkers union and feel this particular incident led to the company’s desire to bust their union. More than 200 workers at the Metropolis plant have been out of work since last June due to stalled contract negotiations with the company on workplace safety, economic and seniority issues. Dozens of workers protested at the Honeywell shareholder meeting on Monday. Honeywell did not return a call from Democracy Now!, but it released a statement that its, quote, "goal remains to reach a fair and equitable settlement with the union."
For more, we’re joined by the longtime labor reporter Mike Elk, who has covered this story for In These Times magazine.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Mike. Welcome back. Talk quickly about the situation at Honeywell. What happened at the shareholders’ meeting, and what’s happened in Metropolis, Illinois?
MIKE ELK: Yes, well, the workers went to the shareholders’ meetings to confront Honeywell CEO David Cote, who’s refused to meet with them about the lockout. The workers have been locked out for about 10 months now. This all started — the workers think this started in 2007, when a worker, [John] Jacobs, confronted the company at a town hall meeting, confronted CEO David Cote, about these 7,000 drums of radioactive mud being stored behind the plant in an open-air facility, that could possibly leak into the Ohio River. He confronted him, and they think this was the beginning of the problems. But however, the company came to the workers this time around in the contract negotiations, asked them to give up their retiree healthcare, to give up their pensions, and to increase their healthcare contributions up to about $8,000 a year. And the workers quite simply could not accept this, so they refused to accept the contract. And for the last 10 months, the workers have been locked out.
Now, during that time, the company brought in scabs, replacement workers, from a group called the Shaw Group. Now, the Shaw Group has a long history of covering up nuclear — you know, problems at nuclear facilities. They were fined $6.2 million by the federal government in 2009 for forcing its workers not to report safety problems at nuclear facilities in Alabama and Tennessee.
Since then, they’ve come in — there’s been many accidents. In August, there was an explosion at the plant, when hydrogen and fluoride gas combined. It blew off two of the scrubbers at the plant and forced the plant to shut down for several days. I talked with the state police at the time, and they said they had never heard such a loud explosion come from this plant, in decades.
In September, I found a report from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that showed that Honeywell cheated on the test, the safety test, the qualification test for the scab workers that replaced the locked-out workers. One of these — you know, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission claimed that Honeywell corrected the problem; however, in September, one of the workers, who was not following procedure, damaged a safety valve on a container of UF6 gas. Now, UF6 gas is highly toxic. A couple puffs of it, and you’re dead. By not following procedure, he damaged a safety valve, and it released some traces of UF6 gas into the plant. Now, had that safety valve failed completely — there was 10,000 pounds of UF6 gas in that canister, and had that been released, it would have killed everybody within a six-mile radius of the facility in Metropolis, Illinois.
So the workers — and as well, in December, there was a release of HF gas, where alarms went off for several hours, directly into the atmosphere. So there’s a long history of problems at this facility. And the problems, it seems, have only gotten, you know, worse since they’ve brought in scabs to run the facility.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the connection between David Cote, the CEO of Honeywell — the shareholders’ meeting took place in Morris Township this week in New Jersey; Honey well is based in Morristown, New Jersey — between the CEO and President Obama?
MIKE ELK: Well, quite frankly, the CEO of Honeywell, David Cote, is the best friend of President Obama in the business community. Honeywell was the number one contributor, their PAC was the number one contributor, to the Democratic Party in the 2010 election cycle. They gave $3.8 million to the Democratic Party. President Obama looked to David Cote to make sure that the Chamber of Commerce wasn’t opposed to the stimulus, and keeping the Chamber of Commerce out helped the President pass the stimulus. Also, David Cote was the President’s choice to serve on the deficit commission, where he advocated things like cutting Social Security and Medicare. And in addition, he serves as the head of the U.S.-India Forum. And while this lockout was going on in Metropolis, Illinois, Honeywell CEO David Cote flew with President Obama to India and toured around India with the President, all while this lockout was going on in southern Illinois.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about David Cote’s relationship with the union, his history with the workers?
MIKE ELK: David Cote has had — since he’s taken over the company, you know, Honeywell always had pretty good labor relations up until David Cote took over the company a few years ago. Now, since he’s come in, he’s made it a habit to go about busting unions throughout the company. He’s somebody obsessed with power, and he doesn’t want workers telling him how to run the company.
There was another situation where workers were threatening to strike at a facility that serviced the Marine Corps in Blount Island, Florida. Now, David Cote, to stop the strike, Honeywell pulled the security clearances of several of the workers and kicked several of them out of their housing on the base, in order to stop them from striking. And he even threatened to bring in Marine Corps troops to work their jobs, if they did go on strike.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, can you talk about the lack of media attention to what has been taking place with Honeywell? I mean, even the explosion that you described is probably news to most people who are watching and listening.
MIKE ELK: Yeah, I’m quite frankly baffled by it. I’ve been writing about this story for about eight months now. I’ve probably filed a dozen stories on it. And outside of some great coverage by Lauren Lyster of RT TV and Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post, as well as a brief article in the AP, there hasn’t really been much coverage of it. And it just simply astounds me. But it’s typical of lockouts in the United States of America. The only reason you’re hearing about this lockout now on Democracy Now! at this uranium facility is because it is a uranium facility, it’s exciting. There’s been a lockout going on just as long at Roquette factory in Iowa, and almost nobody has heard about that. People don’t hear about lockouts, about strikes in this country. They’re not considered exciting.
And they’re not covered by many reporters, even many progressive reporters, because they’re seen as local struggles, not as national struggles. But the boss — when the boss sees that a union can be broken in a workplace that — you know, like Honeywell’s, where it only has 200 workers, this is a signal that goes down the line that the boss can break companies nationwide, can break unions nationwide. So, it’s a struggle, and it’s one that I think the workers at Honeywell were willing to go one day longer. So it’s absolutely horrendous they haven’t gotten more media coverage, because they’ve been absolutely heroic. They faced, you know, asset repossession, because a lot of them have been without money. Some of them have been threatened with foreclosure. And it’s gotten no media coverage.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike Elk, thanks so much for being with us, assistant editor at In These Times, longtime labor reporter.