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Honeywell lockout of union at Illinois uranium plant nearing one month

By Lewis Krauskopf

Aug 25 (Reuters) - A lockout of about 135 union employees at a Honeywell International Inc uranium conversion plant in Illinois is poised to extend past a month as the two sides remain apart on several issues.

Production and maintenance employees at the Metropolis, Illinois, plant who are members of United Steelworkers Local 7-669 have been locked out since the start of August, after a three-year contract expired. Talks are not expected to resume this week while the company reviews the union's latest proposal, said union spokesman John Paul Smith.

"When it comes down to it, we are no closer to an agreement than we were on Aug. 1," Smith said.

Honeywell said it is committed to bargaining in good faith, but is also concerned about the plant's long-term competitiveness.

The plant accrued $300 million in operating losses over the past 10 years and is "just now starting to break even," a company spokesman said. The diverse manufacturer, whose products also include climate control systems and aviation components, posted $39.1 billion in revenue last year.

"The company believes that with the right investments and the right labor contract, the plant will become and remain profitable," spokesman Peter Dalpe said in an emailed statement.

Honeywell's Metropolis plant is the only U.S. facility that converts uranium oxide into to uranium hexafluoride, which is then enriched to be used as fuel in nuclear power plants.

Honeywell has continued to operate the plant after the lockout, with the remaining roughly 135 plant employees who are non-union, as well as with contingent workers.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has taken more precautions since the lockout began, including continuously staffing the plant during the first 72 hours and increasing safety inspections to once a week from the typical schedule of about once a month.

No "significant issues" have been found, but the NRC will continue the stepped-up inspection schedule until the work stoppage is resolved or the agency is satisfied the plant can operate long-term without any issues, said NRC spokesman Roger Hannah.

"We're satisfied they have the appropriate training, but we want to make sure those people can perform those functions for an extended period of time without any issues," Hannah said.

Honeywell also locked out workers for 14 months between 2010 and 2011 during a contract dispute. Since then, the number of union workers has dropped from 228 to its current level.

The two sides remain apart on use of subcontractors, pay, healthcare benefits and work rules including grievance procedures, Smith said.

Honeywell also closed the plant for a year starting in mid-2012 to make more than $40 million worth of safety upgrades required by the NRC in the wake of the disaster at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant. Some employees were let go during that time, but Honeywell spokesman Dalpe said the investment preserved jobs "that would have been lost otherwise." (Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf; Editing by Alwyn Scott and Lisa Shumaker)