Agco union leaders cancel contract vote

Union leaders at Hesston's Agco farm machinery plant canceled a vote on changes to a contract that would have cut union members' pay.

Kevin Rimbey, president of United Steelworkers Local 11228, said Wednesday afternoon that union leaders heard widespread anger from members over the company's proposed contract changes and what union members call heavy-handed tactics. The vote was scheduled for today.

"We're just responding to what the membership is telling us," he said.

The company said it wouldn't comment on ongoing contract discussions or negotiations.

The plant makes hay and forage equipment and combines. There are about 550 union members at the plant and about 800 people covered by the contract.

Two weeks ago, Rimbey said, the company approached union leaders with the contract proposal and a carrot: the possibility that it might build a paint booth and add jobs at the plant if workers approved the contract changes.

If workers rejected the proposed changes, Rimbey said, they were told the painting operation would likely go to a plant in Brazil.

The proposal included, Rimbey said:

* Eliminating longevity pay of 1 cent per hour, per year of seniority.

* Eliminating cost of living increases.

* Have workers pay, for the first time, 15 percent of health insurance premiums in 2012 and 20 percent starting in 2013.

* Set a pay scale for new workers that would average about $5 an hour less.

The union's professional staff, based in the Kansas City area, recommended acceptance. They couldn't be reached for comment.

Rimbey said the union initially set a vote for Tuesday, but postponed it until today after members complained that plant managers were telling them on Monday to vote for the proposal if they valued their jobs.

The company has said the contract proposal is important to the company's efforts to cut costs in the face of tough worldwide competition.

"They are trying to be more competitive and we understand competitive," Rimbey said. "I was at the meeting and someone asked 'You want us to take concessions, what is management and salaried workers going to give up? And they said 'Nothing. We're not dealing with that now.' "

Welder Dallas Boese said he and his fellow workers rebelled against what he felt were the company's heavy-handed tactics.

"It's frustrating that the company is holding the future of Agco over the union's head," he said, "when really it's not our decision whether the paint facility comes here or not. It's Agco's."