Union recommends Cessna workers strike

Kit Williams shouts during a union rally in Old Town to support the Machinists, which is currently in contract negotiations with Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft. (Sept. 10, 2010)
Kit Williams shouts during a union rally in Old Town to support the Machinists, which is currently in contract negotiations with Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft. (Sept. 10, 2010) The Wichita Eagle

Machinists union leaders recommended Tuesday that its members reject Cessna Aircraft's seven-year contract offer and strike when they vote Saturday.

"We must report to you that our negotiations with Cessna were not successful," the union told workers Tuesday.

Instead of asking for a short-term sacrifice to help weather bad economic times, Cessna wanted permanent cuts for seven years "with no hope of improvement, even if the economy improved," the union said.

Cessna chairman and CEO Jack Pelton said in a statement that the contract is fair given the challenges the company faces in the economy and in the industry.

"This is not about one group of employees," Pelton said. "This is about all of our employees sacrificing and participating in the effort that's necessary to get us through these tough times.

"We're asking our bargaining unit to join us as we work our way through this incredibly competitive market and difficult economy."

Machinists District 70 directing business representative Steve Rooney said the union, which represents 2,400 hourly workers, tried to work with Cessna to save jobs.

"But Cessna instead chose to use the economic downturn as an opportunity to gut the contract and saddle employees with extreme and punitive measures," Rooney said.

Cessna's offer provides only limited job security, the union said. Cessna agreed to keep only final assembly of the current Citation models in Wichita for the life of the agreement, officials said.

The union's largest contention is with health insurance.

Under the contract, workers would switch to United Health Care, the plan used by Cessna's nonbargaining-unit employees.

The union said the switch would mean "massive new costs to our membership, both in premiums and out-of-pocket expenses."

Under the plan, premiums would rise by up to 160 percent, the union said, and cost employees an average of $4,000 to $5,000 more each year.

Should national health care legislation increase costs or taxes to Cessna for providing the benefits, the company can pass on the costs to the employees or reduce benefits a corresponding amount, the offer said.

The contract also:

* Provides a $2,500 lump-sum bonus in January and a $1,000 bonus in 2012.

* Retains the pension plan and improves benefits by $2, to $57 per month per year of service.

* Offers no general wage increases in the first four years of the contract, and a 1 percent wage increase in each of the last three years for some, but not all, workers. It does include annual cost-of-living increases.

* Offers a yearly performance bonus plan of 2 to 4 percent of base wages if target goals are met.

The contract also allows the sides to reopen negotiations after four years to discuss wages, but workers would not be able to strike over its outcome.

Members of the Machinists Local Lodge 774 will vote Saturday at Century II on whether to accept the offer. Its current agreement with the company expires Sunday.

Acceptance takes a simple majority. A strike requires two-thirds of those voting to vote in favor of a work stoppage.

If members reject the contract but not enough vote to strike, the contract is accepted by default.

If they vote to strike, a work stoppage would begin at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

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