Sunday, January 11, 2009

Vought may yank contract if striking workers don't return

Vought Aircraft Industries Inc. said it would take away a contract to build aircraft wings from its Nashville plant if striking workers don't return, in a maneuver ahead of a Tuesday mediation session.

The aerospace manufacturer said that unless strikers ratify a contract by next Friday, the company will shift the $1 billion contract to supply full wing assemblies for the Cessna Citation Columbus to another site. Preparations to start making the wings have been scheduled to start this spring.

The warning, issued Friday afternoon, is the company's second move this week to step up pressure on members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, who have been on picket lines since September. The union is protesting proposed changes to their pension and health-care plans.

Earlier this week, the company said it will hire permanent replacements for the 900 union members still on strike unless they return to work soon.

Bob Wood, a union spokesman, declined to comment on either tactic directly and instead referred to a federal mediation session scheduled for next week.

"What's important here is, I think, we're going back to the table on Tuesday," Wood said. "This needs to be settled in negotiations, not in the press."

Announced in May, the Cessna contract was the first contract in 20 years to build full wings for the Nashville plant. The contract was seen as a coup for a plant that as recently as 2006 was scheduled to be closed.

The Nashville plant now builds tail sections for the Airbus A330 jetliner and military C130 cargo jets, wings for the Gulfstream G450 business jet and parts of wings for the A330.

Production at the plant has continued using temporary contractors and workers from other Vought facilities, but Lynne Warne, a company spokeswoman, said the company won't begin preparations here for the Cessna contract without a permanent, experienced work force in place.

"The reality is we can't wait any longer," Warne said.

Replacements sought

The company also said Friday that it has finalized advertisements for permanent replacement workers that will appear this weekend in newspapers in Nashville and Wichita, Kan., an aviation production hub. Vought will begin substituting those employees for temporary workers within a few weeks, Warne said.

Companies can legally replace strikers permanently if there were no unfair labor practices associated with the strike, said David Parker, deputy executive secretary of the National Labor Relations Board.

The union in this case had originally filed a complaint alleging company intimidation of workers before the strike vote, a charge that if upheld would bar the company from hiring permanent replacements.

In that situation, the replacements could not stay on after the strike, said Tim K. Garrett, an attorney with Bass, Berry & Sims in Nashville.

"The replacements that the company hired would be considered temporary replacements, not permanent replacements, and the company would owe back pay to those strikers," he said.

Complaint withdrawn

But the union has since withdrawn its labor complaint.

That could indicate that the issue was resolved or that the union was told by the NLRB that it wasn't going to issue a ruling against the company based on its charges of unfair labor practices, Garrett said.

A union spokesman said it reserved the right to file its complaint against Vought again if negotiations don't lead to a resolution.

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