Machinists rally to keep jobs in Wichita

Louisiana has tripled its offer to Hawker Beechcraft to lure it to the state, Machinists District 70 president Steve Rooney told union members at a rally Friday in Old Town.

In response, Hawker Beechcraft has told the union that it needs three weeks to evaluate the new offer, he said. It's not known how much the offer is worth, Rooney said after the rally.

Hawker Beechcraft spokeswoman Nicole Alexander said the company had no comment.

Also at Friday's rally, union officials said that contract negotiations with Cessna Aircraft are not going well. Rooney said if Cessna does not improve its contract offer, "that leaves this committee no option but to recommend rejection and authorize a strike."

Machinists at Cessna will vote on a new contract offer next Saturday.

Hawker Beechcraft and its union reopened negotiations a year early in order to save jobs in Wichita, said District 70 business representative Rita Rogers.

"We opened negotiations up with an open mind to save our jobs," Rogers said. "Since then, we don't think the company has been very sincere about their effort."

They've met only four times since talks reopened Aug. 20, she said. The two sides are scheduled to meet Tuesday so the union can present the company its noneconomic proposal, Rogers said. The two sides are scheduled to meet again Wednesday to discuss pensions and also on Thursday.

Hawker Beechcraft has told the union, which represents about 2,400 hourly workers in Wichita, that the company will move its aircraft production out of Wichita if talks aren't successful, union officials have said.

Hawker Beechcraft CEO Bill Boisture has told The Eagle that the company is considering moving work to Louisiana or Mississippi. It's also looking outside the U.S.

A series of decisions will be made over the next six months, Boisture said.

Union officials spoke at a rally at the Pump House on Second Street across from the Courtyard by Marriott, where talks with Cessna are being held. Members held signs and blew whistles to protest jobs possibly leaving the state and in protest of Cessna's current proposal.

Wichita's aviation workers are under attack, said Machinists aerospace coordinator Ron Eldridge. Companies have decided to make the city "ground zero," he said.

"This is the worst proposal I have ever seen," Eldridge said of Cessna's offer. "We are a long, long, long way apart."

Cessna is seeking a 10-year agreement, officials said. In its proposal, Cessna is seeking a 4.2 percent wage cut, reduction of job classifications from 214 to less than 20, weakening of seniority, a 163 percent increase in health insurance costs and elimination of pensions, said District 70 business representative Steve Groom. It does not offer job security, he said.

"There are no GWIs (general wage increases) for the next 10 years," Groom said. "(The cost of ) health care is uncapped."

"What are we going to do if they don't get it right?" Eldridge asked the crowd.

"Strike!" they responded.

Lee Davis, a 15-year Cessna employee, said he hopes the company improves its offer next week.

"I think it's pretty sad they want to take everything from us," Davis said.

He could take a little cut in pay, he said. But freezing pensions is a big issue.

"That's the thing I worry about," he said. In the remainder of his years working at Cessna, "I won't get another penny for retirement."

Renee Kitchens, a nine-year Cessna employee, said her biggest issue is health insurance. She said the proposal would raise premiums hundreds of dollars a month for her family of five.

Cessna is expected to present its final offer to the union Monday.

Members are scheduled to vote next Saturday on whether to ratify the contract. The current contract expires Sept. 19.

A simple majority is needed to accept the offer. If the offer is rejected, it takes a two-thirds vote in favor of a strike for a work stoppage.

If there are not enough votes to strike, the offer is accepted by default.