FORT WORTH — Members of United Auto Workers Local 218 went back to work today at Bell Helicopter after voting Sunday to reject a new proposed three-year contract.Bell officials said that the company will resume talks with the unions bargaining committee, and union leaders say they are also interested in trying to hammer out an agreement to try and avoid a strike.UAW leadership had said it was not prepared to strike following Sunday afternoons vote on the contract.In the event that we did strike, you would see picket lines, service representative Wendell Helms said Sunday afternoon. The union has not determined when there will be one (strike) or should there be one. All of those are processes that we go through.The company issued a statement on Monday saying that it would allow union workers to work on a temporary basis while Bell and the UAW continue to negotiate.Bell has and will continue to negotiate in good faith, the statement said. The offer the company presented employees ... is a highly competitive and world-class offer that provides industry-leading compensation.On Sunday morning, an estimated 2,500 union members spent three hours reviewing a 90-page-plus contract that would offer a cumulative wage increase of 9.1 percent. On average, the contract would provide an average $15,682 in increased compensation to each employee over its three years.But a number of the companys proposals were almost instantly rejected before members walked out of the meeting in red T-shirts that said: Its your job. Protect it.Were not ready to make concessions, Local 218 President Steve Andrews said. The contract was rejected by 85 percent of voting members, the UAW said.Union leaders had recommended that employees reject the contract because it proposed eliminating job classifications, which could lead to hundreds of layoffs. Union officials also balked at cuts in the companys defined benefit plan and employee benefits, and changes in overtime and holiday pay.One proposal could trigger hundreds of layoffs in upcoming months, union leaders said. The company wants to combine a number of jobs and eliminate others. For example, it is proposing to eliminate sandblasters to allow all certified employees to perform those duties. Those employees who may be affected include wrappers, packers, dispatchers, material inventory clerks, saw operators and others.In 2009, the company eliminated janitorial positions and contracted with an outside company, one union member said.The company is also proposing to end Bells defined benefit plan for new employees. Those employees hired after June 10 would have to depend on a defined contribution or 401(k)-style pension plan.Bell and union members have been meeting since April 18 to negotiate a contract. The locals four-year agreement expired Sunday at midnight.Helm said the best option was to return to the bargaining table.In essence, the membership is saying this is not an acceptable offer, he said. It triggers options for both sides ...(but) thats exactly where we need to be at the bargaining table to get a fair acceptable package for these employees.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.
Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705 Twitter: @yberard