By Kay Tillow
All Unions Committee For Single Payer Health Care–HR 676
Aug 29, 2010
On June 28, 2010, Honeywell locked out the 230 union workers at its uranium hexafluoride plant in Metropolis, an Ohio River town of 6,500 at the tip of southern Illinois 400 miles south of Chicago. A working class town nestled amidst the corn, soybean and wheat fields, Metropolis is known for its Superman statue on the court house square where most Illinois candidates, including Barack Obama, have stopped by for a photo op.
Honeywell didn’t care if the workers liked their health care plan. This corporation said it was not going to let them keep it. The members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7-669 refused to accept the company proposal to increase workers’ out of pocket health care maximum to $8,500 a year and to end retiree health coverage. The union proposed to continue working as they bargained. Honeywell said no and locked the doors.
This is not a newly organized plant–the union has had contracts for 50 years. The Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers issued the local its charter on May Day in 1959 and as a result of mergers the local became part of the USW in 2004.
USW 7-669’s sister local in Canada signed their current contract in July 2010, and health care coverage did not present a problem. “Bargaining was not particularly difficult this time around,” said Chris Leavitt, President of USW Local 13173 in Port Hope, Ontario, Canada, home of the Cameco plant, the only other one in North America to make the uranium hexafluoride used to produce nuclear energy. Canadian USW Local 13173 is about the same size as the Metropolis local and was a part of District 50 of the United Mine Workers which affiliated with the USW.
Everyone is covered under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan—automatically–as a part of Canada’s Medicare, a single payer plan, explains Leavitt. Members of Local 13173 and their families pay nothing—no premium, no co-pay, no co-insurance, no deductible–for hospital care plus medication, out patient services, doctor’s visits, and other doctors’ services such as surgery. Health care is publicly funded for everyone so unions can use their bargaining power to negotiate for wages and other benefits.
President Leavitt said this Canadian health plan makes it a lot better for unions. With the basics covered, the unions negotiate only for the extras. Leavitt said his local has bargained for the company to cover the total cost of premiums for the additions–the difference in cost for a private hospital room, private nurses, massage and speech therapy, prescription drugs, family dental including orthodontics, and vision care including glasses or contact lenses. Members of the Canadian USW Local pay only $20 per year for family dental, $10 per year for an individual.
Leavitt has been president of his local for four years and a union member for 32 years. He says union is a family tradition–his 23 year old son recently organized a union at his place of work. Leavitt expresses pride in his nation’s health care achievements and in Tommy Douglas, the Father of Canada’s Medicare, but said Canadian unions face other problems similar to those of workers in the US. He condemned the current Canadian “right wing government” for its job-destroying free trade pacts and its efforts to privatize.
Back in Metropolis workers have an even more sobering reason to fight for health care benefits for retirees. It’s not kryptonite that threatens the workers and the community, but the chemicals they work with. Local 7-669 President Darrell Lillie says, “What we do is a very, very dangerous job. We deal with the worse acids known to man.”
Directly in front of the Honeywell plant the local has erected a field of crosses, 42 in memory of their members who have died from cancer and 27 smaller crosses to represent workers who have cancer but are surviving. John Paul Smith, media spokesperson for the Metropolis local, said that the dangers that workers have been exposed to are acknowledged by the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program that has designated the Metropolis plant as one where workers are eligible for special benefits if they contract certain types of cancer. “We are working to expand the types of cancer that are covered by this program so that more of our members could get help,” said Smith. In the meantime the workers walk the line to keep health coverage for retirees in the contract.
Smith says the local keeps track of their members and retirees and has counted the cancer victims from their personal knowledge of each other in this small community where everybody knows everybody. The local has a list of about 250 retirees.
Honeywell denies that the cancer deaths are caused by exposures in the plant. Honeywell said the same thing about its Bannister Federal Complex in south Kansas City where workers handled beryllium and other carcinogens with their bare hands uninformed of the consequences. Many of those workers now suffer from cancer, leukemia and other aftereffects, and, so far, 643 Kansas City Honeywell workers have sought compensation under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Program which has paid on 172 of their claims.
Smith reports that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not yet authorized the untrained replacement workers to make uranium hexafluoride. Metropolis citizens are praying that Honeywell won’t try to make UF6 until the skilled workers are back on the job. Jerry Baird who owns Diamond Lil’s Restaurant just up the road from Honeywell says that if the untrained recruits try to start it up and forget what to do, “They’ll probably kill us all.” Baird expresses his solidarity with the union by generously supplying the pickets with barbeque and lemonade.
Despite the heat (over 90 degrees for a month and sometimes over 100 with the heat index rising as high as 115), the workers keep a constant vigil at the two gates on highway 45. The Laborers’ Union has donated their giant inflated rat. In a time of almost 10% unemployment and a sagging economy in which many unions have been forced into painful concessions, the members of USW Local 7-669 are in good spirits and standing strong. In addition to slashing health care, Honeywell also wants to do away with pensions for new hires, so the union fights in solidarity with the young and the senior, certain of the justice of their cause.
“Support USW 7-669” signs dot the yards and stores of Metropolis. Over 3,000 marched in the streets then rallied with the local on August 7. Unions came from Gary, Granite City, all across western Kentucky and Tennessee and southern Illinois. USW Local 15009 from Marion was out in force and expressed their support in song, “I’m union and I stand and no company’s demand will make me fall and I will not crawl. The union is the key to make working people free and I won’t back down and lose my ground.”
“Wow,” said President Darrell Lillie, facing the August 7 crowd and obviously touched by the enormity of the support. “This turnout is unbelievable. It’s bigger than we ever dreamed of.”
The New York Times gave the lockout almost a full page including a picture of the crosses. The St. Louis Post Dispatch has covered the story and so has the AFL-CIO website. There is plenty of food and ice water on the picket line, and, because it is a lock out, workers were able to win unemployment compensation.
Cross border help is coming too. Canadian USW President Chris Leavitt is bringing a group from Port Hope to Metropolis on September 12. They’ll be there for four days and three nigh
ts to be on the picket line and express their solidarity. There will be a lot to talk about.
Local 7-669 intends to win this battle.
Contributions are welcome. Make checks payable to USW Local 7-669, PO Box 601, Metropolis, Illinois 62960. Email: admin@USW7-669.com
All Unions Committee For Single Payer Health Care–HR 676
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