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Machinist members get ready to strike at Learjet

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012, at 9:49 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012, at 10:11 p.m.

Faced with an imminent strike early Monday morning, Bombardier Learjet and its disgruntled Machinists said they want talks to end their dispute as quickly as possible – but they didn’t seem to be saying that to each other.

On Sunday, members of the Machinists union moved a headquarters trailer onto a vacant lot near the company’s sprawling west Wichita aircraft plant and members met to set up committees to handle the various tasks involved in conducting a strike.

The company was implementing its contingency plan to keep its production line on line and its customers happy, without the labor of slightly more than a fourth of its Wichita workforce.

In a vote Saturday, nearly 80 percent of Bombardier’s Machinist union members voted to strike, primarily over what they consider an unacceptable change in their health-care plans. The vote affects 825 workers.

They said the changes the company’s insisting upon could cost workers with chronic medical conditions or sick children hundreds of dollars a month. They said that’s far more than they’d get in the contract’s pay plan, which would freeze wages for a year and then provide 1 percent raises each year for four years.

The company has argued that cuts are necessary because it faces a challenging market for business jets, with layoffs, production rate slowdowns and a pause in Learjet 60 production.

Both sides said as of Sunday afternoon, there were no talks under way to settle the strike, officially set to begin with the current contract’s expiration at a minute after midnight.

There’s “nothing scheduled as of now,” said Peggy Gross, the company’s Wichita spokeswoman. “We’re ready to talk again. We hoped this wouldn’t happen.”

The company, headquartered in Montreal, Canada, did not address the impending strike on its USA website. But the company did post a statement in the “media centre” on its international site.

“Bombardier Learjet put forward a fair and reasonable contract renewal offer to its unionized employees,” the statement said. “While the company is disappointed that the offer was rejected with a vote in favour of a strike, the negotiations team is available to continue negotiations and is hopeful that the union … will soon return to the bargaining table and, by working together, the two parties can resolve outstanding issues.”

At the Machinists hall on South Meridian, union business representative Tony Larkin said : “I hope that’s the truth.”

He said “the phones are open” at the union and its negotiators are willing to meet with the company anytime.

“If it means getting our people back to work, we’re there,” Larkin said. “Even if it’s four in the morning.”

But while the workers want a quick end to the strike, they also seemed resolved to try to keep as much of their current benefits as they can – even though they know they’ll be called “greedy” by some in the Wichita area who think they should be grateful just to have a job.

Worker Cindy Holt said the health cutbacks were “like a slap in the face” for the employees, who had repeatedly been told by management that they were part of a Bombardier family working together for mutual success.

“To get offered this contract … it hurts me,” she said. “I’m striking for all the employees in my union family.”

Larkin said the argument that the workers are greedy is undercut by their offer to forgo wage increases in favor of maintaining their health benefits.

“We produce a very technical product,” he said. “Not everybody can do that. We’re bargaining for what our skill set is worth.”

Surviving the strike will require hard work on both sides.

Bombardier said it’s taking steps to try to minimize the effect on its business.

“A contingency plan at the Wichita site has been implemented and Bombardier Learjet is working towards minimizing disruption to the production line, the customers and the community,” the company said in its statement.

Gross said she could not provide details on what the contingency plan entails.

But she did say that the current plan does not call for bringing in replacement workers, either from outside the company or from other Bombardier facilities.

“We have employees (in the Wichita plant) who can help out in certain areas,” she said.

At the union hall, about 30 members were forming up into committees to oversee the picketing and other activities.

The largest group was the Security Committee, whose members were being briefed on what they legally can and can’t do on the picket lines. The plant runs 24 hours and plans were to have pickets at each gate that the company opens.

Another group was going through storage units, breaking out supplies such as the reflective safety vests that the picketers will be wearing on the line.

Others were discussing ways to keep the picketers adequately fed and supplied with coffee and other beverages during their shifts on the line and at the strike headquarters.

As of Sunday, the headquarters trailer was up and running on a generator. Ken Lewellen, a member of the negotiating team, said the union hopes to get it hooked into line current early this week.

Still, he said he hopes the strike is a short one and he’s optimistic that talks will resume by about midweek.

“Absolutely, we want to get this resolved,” he said. “We need to figure out a way we can.”

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527.

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