FORT WORTH — A sharp increase in healthcare premiums and a reduction in holiday pay were among the factors that prompted union workers at Bell Helicopter to overwhelmingly reject a new contract offer, according to several workers.While Bell said the “world-class” contract would provide pay increases of 9 percent over three years, the workers said many veteran employees would receive far less — no raise in the first year and 2 percent in each of the next two years.Members of United Auto Workers Local 218 rejected the proposed contract Sunday, with about 85 percent of the 2,500 members voting it down.Although their contract has expired, the UAW members have kept working while the union and Bell negotiate a new labor agreement.“Bell Helicopter is committed to continuing our efforts to reach an agreement with UAW Local 218 that meets the needs of both our customers and employees and helps us win in the marketplace,” Bell spokesman Bill Schroeder said Wednesday.Several union members, who declined to be identified because of the negotiations with Bell, said healthcare premiums would more than double over three years. They said the increased healthcare costs and other changes such as a reduction of job classifications would outweigh the wage increase and could lead to layoffs.The workers also took issue with information released by the company Sunday touting a proposed wage increase of 9.1 percent over three years.They said the figure includes “wage progression” increases slated for some employees, such as new hires, that would provide automatic increases of $2 an hour. Others have salaries that rise by 75 cents an hour every six months.But they said many longtime employees would see a salary increase of 4 percent by 2016. For an employee who makes $30 an hour, that is about $2,496 more a year, workers say, based on the current wage schedule.On average, the Bell union workers earn base wage rates of more than $66,518 per year, according to the contract proposal.“Nine percent … it’s a good number and it sounds good,” said one four-year UAW member who did not want to be identified. “It creates apathy in the interest of the public saying, ‘Those bunch of whiners. I wish I got 2 percent [or 3 percent] this year.”Company officials did not respond to a request for clarification on the proposed wage increases or a request for comment on whether reduced job classifications would spur layoffs.Because negotiations are ongoing, it’s “inappropriate” to discuss further details publicly, Schroeder said in a statement.Steve Andrews, president of Local 218, did not respond to a request for comment.On Sunday, union leaders held a news conference on the contract proposal. They said the potential for layoffs is strong because the company has recommended combining some jobs and eliminating others.For example, it proposes eliminating sandblasters to allow all certified employees to perform those duties. Those who may be affected include wrappers, packers, dispatchers, material inventory clerks and saw operators.The union leaders also balked at a proposal to eliminate the defined-benefit pension plan for new hires, as well as changes in overtime and holiday pay. Under the proposal, employees hired after June 10 would be given only a defined-contribution, or 401(k)-style, retirement savings plan.The company proposal also offered workers a $5,500 cash signing bonus.
Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705 Twitter: @yberard