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Machinists vote to accept Bombardier Learjet contract offer, ending strike

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, at 1:35 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012, at 7:32 a.m.

The strike at Bombardier Learjet has ended after Machinists union members voted Saturday to accept the company’s offer of a new labor contract that included improved health care provisions and a 4 percent wage increase spread across five years.

Strikers will return to work on Monday, although they have until Nov. 30 to return.

Seventy percent of the members voting approved the contract.

The mood was mixed at Machinists District 70 on south Meridian, where they voted. Union negotiators had recommended that members accept the contract.

“The contract is a reasonable agreement,” said Frank Molina, president and directing business representative for the Machinists District 70. “Is it perfect? It’s not perfect…”

But there were a lot of gains in the offer, he said.

“We are happy with the gains we have today,” Molina said. “It is a big difference to what we received on Oct. 8 to where we are today.”

Members walked off the job Oct. 8 after rejecting the company’s offer of a five-year agreement, saying their main sticking point was significant increases to their health care costs.

Molina said that some members don’t yet fully understand the health care program under the accepted contract. But they will see that “it really is going to be good,” he said. “It really does provide decent coverage for our membership.”

Bombardier Learjet vice president and general manager Ralph Acs said in a statement that the company is satisfied with the vote’s outcome and confident about moving forward and continuing to work with employees.

“The agreement reflects our mutual commitment to the long-term success of our site,” Acs said. “We believe the strength and long-term potential of Learjet in Wichita resides with the products we manufacture and the experienced, dedicated and skilled work force that contributes to the production and maintenance of world-class aircraft.”

Brian Terrell said the offer was better than the one members rejected in October.

“I have five kids,” Terrell said. He liked that the company added a wellness plan as a choice of health care coverage. The company also upped its portion of what it will pay for health insurance premiums.

“It works for me,” Terrell said.

The strike wasn’t a money battle, he said.

“The benefits are really all you have left,” Terrell said. In today’s economy, “I think we’re dang lucky to have what they’re offering.”

Kevin Burrow said Saturday morning that he thought the contract would be accepted.

“I think people are ready to go back to work,” said Burrow, who voted in favor of the offer.

The mood on the picket line was that the proposal is about as good as it’s going to get, Burrows said.

“We made our statement,” he said. “A strike is a gamble anyway. Whether or not it’s a successful strike is a matter of opinion.”

Michael Yarnal said he had reservations about the offer, which includes no wage increases in the first year and a 1 percent increase in each of the next four years. The cost of living keeps rising, he said.

“Everything’s going up,” Yarnal said. “My income is going to decrease” with the offer.

Still, he has a wife and daughter with medical needs, and he needs to get back to work for the medical coverage.

Now that the strike is over, it will take time to recover friendships, Yarnal said. Some people crossed the picket line after a day or a week or they didn’t go out at all, he said.

“We do the fighting and they get the benefit for it,” he said. “It makes me feel cheated.”

Tom Deeds, a 24-year employee and a sheet metal mechanic, criticized the wage increases, calling them“an insult.”Although the company improved the health insurance costs, he figures everyone is taking a wage cut for the next five years.

“That’s tough,” he said. “That doesn’t do anything for Wichita.”

Under the terms of the new contract, he’s concerned new employees will be reluctant to stay with the company.

“We’re going to be a training center, and we’re not going to keep employees,” Deeds said. “They’ll come in to get their training and leave.”

A few people outside the Machinists District 70 hall said they were unhappy the contract was accepted.

“One percent is not a raise; it’s an insult,” one woman said.

The union’s Local Lodge 639 represents 825 hourly workers at Bombardier’s Learjet plant in west Wichita.

A federal mediator had asked both parties to return to the negotiating table, and they accepted. The mediator met with both sides during two long days of meetings last week.

His presence helped both sides reach an agreement, Molina said. So did calling in a medical consultant who fully explained the benefits.

This is the second – and longest – strike in the plant’s history in Wichita. The union struck the company for three weeks in 2006.

Acs warned the union when talks opened that the company faces the realities of an “extremely challenging” market with layoffs, production rate slowdowns and a pause in Learjet 60 production. At the same time, medical and pension costs are high.

Along with the wage increases, Bombardier Learjet’s proposal included lump-sum payments of $2,500 in the first year, $1,000 in year two and potential payouts through an employee incentive plan in years three, four and five.

Compared to the rejected proposal, the new offer lowers the cost of health care premiums for hourly workers and increases the company’s share of costs.

Contact Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com.

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