Honeywell, workers in Illinois reach deal to end lockout

Wednesday, July 20, 2011 | 4:14 p.m. CDT; updated 4:25 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 20, 2011

ST. LOUIS — The union representing about 230 workers at a key southern Illinois plant that makes nuclear fuel has reached a tentative three-year deal with the company that locked them out more than a year ago in Superman's adoptive hometown, both sides confirmed Wednesday.

Terms of the deal involving Honeywell's Metropolis plant were not released because of a pending vote by the union's members. Bargainers must first resolve how to transition the workers back to their jobs at the nation's only plant that begins refining uranium for eventual use in nuclear power plants.

Darrell Lillie, president of the United Steelworkers local that backed the displaced workers, said a ratification vote could come within days. If the deal is approved, the hourly workers must be retrained and recertified by Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules before returning. They would then supplant the replacement workers who have filled in since shortly after the labor dispute began in June of last year.

Lillie offered few details about the deal Wednesday, saying only that it calls for the locked-out workers to retain their job seniority that Honeywell sought to eliminate. Lillie called that "the biggest issue" during the contract talks that languished for much of the past year, noting that "without seniority, you've got nothing."

Workers would get no pay increase during the contract's first year, with a 1 percent pay boost in the second year and a 2 percent raise in the third, Lillie said.

"We've said all along it wasn't about money," Lillie told The Associated Press by telephone Wednesday. "I finally got to sleep a full amount last night. I'm glad it's coming to a head, but we still have a little work to do.

A Honeywell spokesman, Peter Dalpe, said in a statement that the company "believes this agreement is both fair and equitable, and that it will help reverse operating losses at the facility and help ensure its long-term economic viability."

"We are hopeful the agreement will be ratified," he said.

The labor troubles date 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.

By Wednesday, word of the labor dispute's possible resolution was swiftly being embraced in Metropolis, a 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.

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.

"Any time you have that many well-paying jobs, that means a lot to the community," Mayor Billy McDaniel said. "Any time you miss a year's work, even living on unemployment, you're almost afraid to spend anything."

"Our community has been through a lot this year," including the town's recent grapple with its worst flooding in 70 years, McDaniel added. "The Honeywell situation (being remedied) will just be a great, great, great piece of the pie. It's an uneasy feeling for both sides, and I'm glad it's close to being over with."

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