FORT WORTH — Hundreds of union workers at Bell Helicopter returned to work Monday after soundly rejecting a contract offer that included changes in job classifications and pension benefits as well as wage increases.Bell officials said the company planned to resume talks with the bargaining committee for United Auto Workers Local 218, which indicated its interest in trying to reach an agreement and avoid a strike.“Bell has and will continue to negotiate in good faith,” the company said in a statement. “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 offered a cumulative wage increase of 9.1 percent over three years that would provide an average $15,682 in increased pay.But a number of other proposals were almost instantly rejected, including changes in job classifications that union leaders fear would trigger hundreds of layoffs in coming months. Union officials also balked at cuts in the company’s defined benefit pension plan and employee benefits, and at changes in overtime and holiday pay.Bell and the union, which represents production workers, have been meeting since April 18 to negotiate a new contract. The local’s existing four-year agreement expired at midnight Sunday.Bell, which is owned by Rhode Island-based Textron, has been working to reduce costs in the face of planned cuts to defense spending, including so-called sequestration. In recent months, the company announced about 140 layoffs and an early retirement program.In March, Bell CEO John Garrison alerted employees of reduced orders for the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, which Bells builds with Boeing Co., that will affect operations in Fort Worth and Amarillo this year. Under Bell’s current contract with the government, which ends in 2015, the company is producing about 30 Ospreys a year.Wendell Helms, a negotiator with the UAW, 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] that’s exactly where we need to be at the bargaining table to get a fair acceptable package for these employees.”The company is also proposing to end Bell’s 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.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. The strike lasted about six weeks.
Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705 Twitter: @yberard