FORT WORTH — Members of United Auto Workers Local 218 are expected to converge Sunday at the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum to vote on a contract offer by Bell Helicopter.Union members have been meeting with the company since April 18 to negotiate a contract. The membership’s current four-year agreement expires Sunday at midnight, and workers could go on strike. Union members could ratify the contract agreement or declare a strike, according to the union website.The new contract would affect about 2,500 hourly employees at Bell.Local 218 President Steve Andrews, who has been part of the negotiating committee, did not return phone calls seeking comment.Bell Helicopter spokesman Bill Schroeder also did not return a request for comment.Hourly workers last declared a strike in 2009, when Bell offered a proposal to boost healthcare costs by raising weekly employee premiums and doubling many deductibles. During that strike, workers represented by UAW Local 317, which represents a smaller work group of office workers, stayed out for two weeks before ratifying a new contract, while members of Local 218, which represents production workers, held out for six weeks.That strike was the company’s first since 1987.It’s unclear what issues are being discussed at the negotiating table. But it’s evident that tensions could flare up as money gets tighter in an industry that largely depends on big defense contracts.Last year, thousands of aerospace workers at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics on the city’s west side walked the picket line for months over changes in employee benefits. The company has also had more than 300 layoffs in the last year, and offered an employee retirement program.In recent months, Bell has also been working to reduce its workforce with about 140 layoffs and an early retirement program. Beginning in March, CEO John Garrison has issued memos in which he alerts employees of reductions in orders for the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft that will affect operations in Fort Worth and Amarillo this year.Also in March, the company announced an early retirement program for employees 55 and older, similar to a package offered last year.Over several years, Bell and partner Boeing have been in production of the V-22 Osprey. Under Bell’s current contract with the government, which ends in 2015, the company is producing about 30 Ospreys a year.It has delivered about 230 of the tilt-rotor aircraft to the military, including the Marines and Air Force. A second, multiyear contract calls for the production of about 20 tilt-rotor aircraft a year, according to Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace industry analyst in Washington, D.C.The V-22, which takes off like a helicopter and flies like an airplane, is also part of a weapon package being offered to Israel. If the deal is completed, it would would mark the first foreign sale of the aircraft.
Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705 Twitter: @yberard