- Associated Press - Monday, December 20, 2010

METROPOLIS, Ill. | With a Mayberry-meets-Disney charm, this southern Illinois town has enthusiastically claimed Superman as its favorite son.

A 15-foot bronze statue of the buff comic-book hero stands in Superman Square, just two blocks from a statue of an actress who played Lois Lane. Cartoon kitsch is festooned everywhere to create a Superman mecca that will bring in tourist dollars. Tens of thousands turn out each June for the city’s four-day Superman Celebration.

Yet months of labor turmoil now threaten to undermine the cheery tourist atmosphere in this 171-year-old Ohio River town because of Metropolis’ dependence on uranium-related jobs.

At the sprawling Honeywell Specialty Materials plant on Metropolis’ outskirts, about 230 union workers take turns picketing at the nation’s only site for refining uranium for eventual use in nuclear power plants. The pickets have been there since the company locked out the workers in June and brought in replacements.

The strikers are warning about the risk of toxic releases into the community while they’re not at their jobs. They have planted dozens of small, white crosses near the highway to represent workers who have died as a result of cancer, which they say could be linked to radiation exposure at the plant. Nearby stands a giant inflatable rat made to represent the company’s supply of replacement “scabs.”

The scenes reflect tensions growing in this town of 6,500 among neighbors and the different parts of Metropolis’ economic livelihood.

The dispute “really tears a community apart. You have friend pitted against friend,” Mayor Billy McDaniel laments, noting the fraying of friendships between locked-out Honeywell workers and salaried, nonunion employees still on the job. “We need that company, and we need those company men, those union workers, back in there - now.”

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. With a normal work force 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.

The town branched out in the early 1970s, according to the city’s tourism officials, when a Kentuckian who moved here was floored that Metropolis had not taken advantage of its name and began to offer ideas. The state General Assembly declared the town Superman’s home in 1972.

The newspaper is now the Metropolis Planet, an homage to the fictional Daily Planet in the fictional city of Metropolis where Lois Lane and Clark Kent sniffed out stories. Visitors shop for superhero souvenirs in the town’s shops, and the distinctive “S” is emblazoned everywhere. Among the visitors who couldn’t resist being photographed next to the Superman statue, with chest puffed out and hands on hips in classic Superman style, was Barack Obama, who made a political appearance here years ago.

Darrell Lillie, president of the United Steelworkers local, said Honeywell wants to eliminate worker seniority and farm out more work to contractors. “If we accept what’s on the table right now, we’d be crushed as a union,” he said. Honeywell insists that the problem is “this union’s attitude about change,” said Peter Dalpe, a company spokesman.