How would you describe the situation of a corporation involved in union-busting, mishandling of radioactive waste, production of nuclear weapons and the effort to lower corporate tax rates while cutting Social Security and Medicare? If you are Barron’s, you’d say the firm is “in its sweetest spot in more than a decade.”
That’s the way the investment weekly describes Honeywell International in a recent article that gushes over the company’s financial results and predicts that its stock is “poised for liftoff.” Honeywell, a $33 billion transnational, is viewed differently in Metropolis, Illinois, where some 230 members of the United Steelworkers union have been locked out of their jobs for more than nine months.
Apologists for the attacks on public employees often try to disavow anti-union motivations by saying they have no problem with collective bargaining in the private sector. Honeywell is a glaring reminder that challenges to worker rights can be found among employers of all types these days.
The dispute in Metropolis—which calls itself the hometown of the fictional character Superman—brings together a variety of current hot-button issues, including unions, nuclear power, environmental protection, healthcare coverage and pensions. Honeywell’s plant is the sole facility in the country that converts uranium ore into the uranium hexafluoride gas used in the production of both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. This is a risky process that involves highly toxic materials.
These dangers were highlighted in December 2003, when an accidental release of toxic gas forced the evacuation of nearby residents and the shutdown of the plant for four months. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued two violations relating to the way the company handled the incident.
Given such hazards, the members of Steelworkers Local 7-669 have long focused on safety issues, both for themselves and for the surrounding community. The union has been particularly concerned about the high rate of cancer among the workforce and thus has sought to negotiate good health coverage for active workers and retirees. During contract renegotiations last year, Honeywell sought to eliminate retiree health benefits, reduce pensions for new hires, cap severance pay and contract out maintenance. When the union balked but declined to strike, the company abruptly locked out the workers in June. And in a move made all the more reckless by the dangerous nature of the work, the company brought in poorly trained replacements to keep the plant operating.
In September, a loud explosion was heard at the plant but there were no reports of toxic releases. A Steelworkers report notes that the company was cited by the NRC for improperly coaching replacement working during on-site job evaluations by federal inspectors. Honeywell’s safety image was further tarnished just a few weeks ago, when the U.S. Justice Department and the EPA announced that the company had paid a criminal fine of $11.8 million to resolve a charge of illegally storing hazardous and radioactive materials in Metropolis.
The $11 million is the latest addition to the more than $650 million in fines and damages Honeywell has paid since 1995 in connection with 32 instances of misconduct collected by the Project On Government Oversight in its Federal Contractor Misconduct Database (the company ranks 17th in amount paid out).
Honeywell’s record of corporate irresponsibility goes back even farther. From the late 1960s through the late 1980s, the old Honeywell (prior to its 1999 takeover by AlliedSignal, which adopted the name) was targeted by antiwar activists because of its production of cluster bombs and land mines that were widely used in Vietnam and later because it was unwilling to take responsibility for clearing munitions that remained after the war was over.
Despite this checkered history, Honeywell has remained a large federal contractor. It is involved, for example, in both the clean-up of the Cold War-era Savannah River nuclear weapons complex in South Carolina and the construction of a new nuclear arms production facility in Kansas City.
And if all the above is not enough controversy, Honeywell CEO David Cote was named by President Obama (before the lockout) to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which issued a report in December that, among other things, proposed cuts in corporate tax rates. Cote issued a personal statement complaining that the report did not take a harder line on Medicare and Medicaid, and he recently called for cuts in Social Security. He also just told Bloomberg Television that he would love to see corporate income taxes entirely eliminated.
For many people, the Honeywell name is still associated with thermostats. But today, it is a poster child for much that is wrong with corporate America—mistreatment of workers, environmental recklessness, military profiteering, and unwillingness to pay a fair share of taxes. It should be made to feel more of the heat itself.