Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Picketers doubt Vought can keep up

Vought Aircraft Industries said Monday that production is continuing at the plant despite Sunday's strike by about 1,000 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Salaried employees have been transferred to the assembly line, and contract workers are being brought in to assist them in the construction of aircraft components, including wing and tail assemblies for some Airbus jetliners, C-130 military cargo planes and Gulfstream business jets, plant spokeswoman Lynne Warne said.

"To sustain aircraft subassembly production at Vought's Nashville facility, we have assigned our 200 salaried employees to the shop floor and plan to add contractor labor as well," she said.

"These actions are part of Vought's contingency plans that are designed to mitigate disruption to our operations and minimize impact to our customers."

Outside on the picket lines, striking workers say they doubt that the plant can maintain a sufficient level of production to meet customers' needs while the strike continues.

"They're going to tell you things are going great guns, but they're not," said Bob Wood, spokesman for union Local 735, which represents the hourly workers at the plant. "Management people went in, but they're just going to mess things up."

The strike was called Sunday after the workers failed to ratify a new contract, but it's not pay that's the key issue; it's pension and health care benefits.

Workers average about $20 an hour in pay. They would get raises of 75 cents an hour in the first year of the new contract, and 50 cents in each of the next two years, plus a $3,000 bonus, under the proposal that was voted down Saturday by 94 percent of Vought's workers.

"We're striking to keep our retirement and health benefits intact," said J.T. Hamer, 64, of Madison, a 38-year employee at the plant who was picketing at one of the gates to the facility, adjacent to Nashville International Airport, on Monday.

Workers say they're not willing to accept Vought's proposal to switch their traditional "defined benefits" pension plan to a new "defined contribution," or 401(k) plan.

Such plans are subject to the ups and downs of the financial markets, and with the current turmoil on Wall Street most 401(k) plans are losing money now, union officials said

The union proposes to take on the company's pension plan itself, but Vought wouldn't agree to that, Wood said.

In a memo to employees before the strike began, Vought human resources director Maxis Garrett warned that the union's proposal would have the company send each employee's pension-fund contribution "directly to the (international union) for their (international union) pension fund."

But trying to force a 401(k) plan on the union right now "is a nonstarter, considering what happened in the stock market today," said Gary Chaison, a labor-relations expert and professor of management at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. The Dow Jones industrial average fell nearly 7 percent Monday. "This is not the time for the company to push a 401(k) plan."

Eliminating the traditional pension plan and reducing health-care costs "are very typical of the concessionary bargaining going on now," Chaison said. "Pension and health care are sacred to most unions, but pressure is on them all over the country.

"In the past 10 years, these have been the top issues in almost every major strike. What you're looking at is an instance of a union trying to protect the old territory."

Union member Rick Nelms, 56, of Murfreesboro said his major concern is a proposed new cap of $425 on prescription-drug benefits for retirees. "If you got sick under their new plan, you'd have to sell your house just to buy the drugs you'd need," he said.

Chaison said reining in health costs is a primary goal of most companies.

"Health care is so expensive to these companies that just a little tinkering here and there can mean big savings," Chaison said. "But with the economic downturn we're in now, I don't see how the strike can be all that successful. The workers won't want a long strike any more than the company will."

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