Vote spared community from strike

What a relief not to have begun the week with a work stoppage at Cessna Aircraft. When Machinists union members rejected the company's contract Saturday but fell short of approving a strike, the broader community escaped what would have been a painful blow to an already ailing economy.

Like the Spirit AeroSystems machinists before them over the summer, the Cessna workers thought better of striking the company right now, at a time when aircraft sales are so slow and companies are being aggressively courted by other states and countries.

Not that the decision was easy.

Union members will lose ground under the contract, which went into effect Monday by default.

They will see fewer raises and higher costs for health benefits. They will sacrifice job security.

The circumstances are not happy.

But "a paycheck is a hard thing to give up," as Machinists District 70 directing business representative Steve Rooney observed.

Especially now, with so little certainty about when the market for general aviation is going to stabilize and start growing again.

Different Machinists union strikes have different impacts on Wichita. In Cessna's case, a strike would have affected 2,400 hourly workers, compared with the four-week 2008 strike involving 4,700 workers at Hawker Beechcraft and the 69-day strike in 1995 involving 7,200 Boeing workers.

But if a Cessna strike had meant $2.1 million a week in lost wages, as estimated by Jeremy Hill, director of Wichita State University's Center for Economic Development and Business Research, the cumulative and ripple effects surely would have been visible and long-lasting.

The other good news for Wichita in this bad situation is the stability afforded by the contract, under which there will be no strikes for seven years. Cessna has agreed to keep final assembly of the Citation products in Wichita for that period as well. The 10-year contract at Spirit, similarly approved by default after a strike vote fell short of the needed two-thirds majority, also gives the community some welcome breathing room. So does Bombardier Aerospace's plan to expand operations and assemble its new composite Learjet 85 business jet in Wichita.

Now all eyes and hopes move to the Machinists union contract negotiations with Hawker Beechcraft, even as the company reportedly weighs its options for moving work out of Wichita. It will take mutual respect and open communication to navigate through this crucial moment for the union, company and community.

As the Machinists union seeks to deliver the best contracts it can to the workers it represents, Wichita's aviation manufacturers must seek new ways now to deliver the aircraft the world economy will need through this century.

In Cessna's case, avoiding a strike keeps workers and union leadership off the picket lines and allows them to be key partners in charting the company's future.