Dozens of workers walked the picket line, jammed traffic and decried changes in health care coverage Monday on the first day of their strike at Bombardier Learjet in Wichita.
Vehicles were backed up on Tyler Road entering the plant Monday morning after strikers began picketing just after midnight. Picketers stopped each car at the plant entrance for about 30 seconds before waving it through the gate and onto the property.
“You look like a happy camper,” one striker said to the driver of a car who had finally reached the gate. “You’re at the front of the line.”
After a few seconds, the strikers waved him through.
“Give us a honk,” a striker said to another driver, who tooted her horn as she drove through.
“We’re running a peaceful strike,” said Machinists union spokesman Bob Wood.
Although things ran smoothly on the picket line, the union faces serious issues.
On Saturday, 79 percent of Machinists union members who voted rejected the company’s five-year contract offer and voted to strike. The union, Local Lodge 639, represents 825 hourly workers at the west Wichita plant, about one-fourth of the plant’s 3,500 employees.
Bombardier Learjet received a court order Monday limiting the number of picketers on the line.
“If someone approaches and indicates to the union they want to come in and go to work, the union, or strike captain, is instructing the picketers to move out of the path of the vehicle,” said Bombardier Learjet spokeswoman Peggy Gross.
Police began limiting the delay of each vehicle to 10 seconds to help with the snarl of traffic.
The company wants to return to the negotiating table. For its part, the union is ready to talk as soon as the company is ready to talk about health care, Wood said.
“As soon as they’re ready to put those HMOs back on the table, we’ll talk,” he said.
The elimination of two HMO plans used by 80 percent of the workforce and large increases in health care costs were the No. 1 reason the contract was rejected, union members said.
Striking workers say changes in medical coverage could cost workers with chronic medical conditions or those who have sick children hundreds of dollars a month — far more than they would get in the contract’s proposed wage increases. Under the proposal, workers would receive no general wage increases in the first year and 1 percent raises in each of the next four years.
Dalan Thompson said the changes would be devastating to his family.
He said he has two children – one with asthma and one with diabetes – and he and his wife have medical conditions as well. Between them, they take 15 prescriptions per month. Under the proposed plan, he said his costs for prescriptions would rise.
He said he had to take his daughter to the emergency room on Friday because of her asthma. Had the new changes taken effect, his cost for the trip would have risen from $100, to $100 plus $250 plus 20 percent of the bill.
“It would bankrupt our family,” Thompson, an electrical technician and 23-year Learjet employee, said of the changes. “I’m sure I’d have to find another career.”
This strike hurts more than the last work stoppage in 2006, said John R. Smith, a 21-year employee who works in shipping and receiving.
“They’re really wanting to hurt us in the pocket,” Smith said. “It’s hard enough for the families now.”
The proposal would raise health insurance premiums from $76 per pay period to $161 per pay period for a family. Those rates aren’t capped and could be subject to increases every year during the contract.
The cost of a surgery or emergency room care also would increase. An employee whose family member had inpatient surgery costing $8,000 pays nothing now. Under the new plan, that would rise to $1,800 in the network and $3,350 out of the network.
Emergency room costs also would increase from a $100 co-pay hourly workers pay today to a $100 co-pay, $250 individual deductible and 20 percent of the entire bill, the union said.
Bombardier Learjet officials have argued that cuts are necessary because the company faces a challenging market for business jets, with layoffs, production rate slowdowns and a pause in Learjet 60 production.
“Bombardier Learjet put forward a fair and reasonable contract renewal offer to its unionized employees,” the company said in a statement. “While the company is disappointed that the offer was rejected with a vote in favor of a strike, the negotiations team is available to continue negotiations and is hopeful that the union representing Bombardier Learjet employees will soon return to the bargaining table and, by working together, the two parties can resolve all outstanding issues.”
In the first few days of the strike, work hours for those crossing the picket line will run from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., unless otherwise instructed by managers, the company told employees. Management may alter the work schedule as needed after the first few days of the work stoppage.
“We ask that all employees continue to treat each other in a professional and respected manner,” the company said in a website posting about the negotiations.
It asked employees who are crossing the picket lines to remain calm and composed and not to become embroiled in arguments or name calling.