Union to end one-day strike at Bell Helicopter at midnight

Posted Friday, Sep. 06, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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More than 2,500 machinists, packers, forklift operators and other workers went on strike against Bell Helicopter early Friday, but by the end of the day the union decided to end the walkout.

“The strike will end effective midnight, September 6,” United Auto Workers Local 218 bargaining committee member Wendell Helms wrote in a letter sent to Rick Sassu, Textron’s executive director of employee relations, on Friday afternoon. Textron is Bell’s parent company.

The one-day job action followed months of failed negotiations between the helicopter manufacturer and the union, with proposed changes to health care and pension benefits the main sticking point in the talks.

In the letter, Helms accused the company of unfair labor practices that “have prevented the bargaining necessary to reach a new collective bargining agreement.” Specifically, he said the company had secretly diverted work from union members and made clear that it would not bargain on issues of pensions, overtime and health care.

Company officials said early Friday that Oct. 3 was the next date it had set to hold talks with union officials, and called the 24-hour strike a “bargaining tactic.”

Bell President and CEO John Garrison said that the company has bargained “in good faith and presented a highly competitive offer” to UAW Local 218 employees.

“The company has presented a world-class offer that would continue our tradition of providing employees represented by UAW Local 218 with industry-leading wages, yearly increases and a competitive benefits package for you and your families,” Garrison said.

The walkout started after the midnight hour early Friday morning, when workers lined up in front of Bell’s headquarters to air their discontent over contract proposals. Union members had been working without a contract since June and twice rejected company offers.

Toby Nicholson said union leaders met with Bell officials on Thursday to negotiate.

“They said take it or leave it, so we left it,” said Nicholson, 40, who was picketing Friday.

In the early morning, as non-union workers were met by a picket line at the complex, a striking worker was struck by a pickup truck entering the parking lot and injured. The 45-year-old picketer, who was not identified, was clipped on the leg, said Paul Moser, another striking employee.

Union members said the victim suffered a dislocated knee. He was treated at the scene by paramedics but declined to go to the hospital.

“He was walking and picketing and got hit,” said Moser, 52, a 28-year employee at the plant located on Texas 10 on the Hurst-Fort Worth border. “A police officer witnessed it and pursued him into the parking lot.”

The driver, Ronald Edward Moore, 64, was arrested at the scene on suspicion of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

“I guess he got tired of waiting and decided he was going to go into the parking lot even though the pedestrians had the right of way,” said Hurst Assistant Police Chief Steve Niekamp. “He just drove up and hit the guy.”

About a dozen workers were picketing at the site where the man was hit, while strikers marched at other plant entrances. As commuters passed by the plant early Friday, some honked to show their support while some yelled at strikers.

One man in a red truck slowed down and screamed “bastards!” at the pickets, who were unfazed by the comment.

Tensions are high, said Bell dispatcher Gary Livingston. Many workers are concerned about their livelihood now that they are on strike.

“People are mad at the company,’’ Livingston said. “They are in disbelief that the company wouldn’t negotiate in good faith. It’s been zero-negotiating, only dictating,’’ he said.

‘Unfair labor practices’

The union objects to proposed changed that would raise health care premiums and reduce pension and overtime benefits. New employees would no longer have access to the company’s traditional defined benefit plan and instead rely on a 401(k)-style plan.

In addition, some workers have feared that a provision in the contract proposal would allow the company to replace union workers at will.

“I don’t want anybody taking my job out from underneath me,’’ said Joey Sposito, who works in blade fabrication. “I earned my position.”

The Bell saga echoes last year’s 10-week strike by the machinists’ union at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. In that walkout, union members were unable to prevent the aerospace company from ending traditional pensions for new hires. The union eventually accepted a contract that was not much better than the one they initially rejected.

UAW Local 218 at Bell last went on strike four years ago.

“We did it last time and those six weeks was tough,’’ Sposito said.

Bell defends contract offer

Bell officials have said that the company is open to hearing union proposals “on any and all elements of the collective bargaining agreement.”

In comments early Friday, the company said it remained willing to negotiate and believed that it was “in everyone’s best interests to continue to work.”

It urged union officials to “quickly return to the negotiating table to reach an agreement that meets the needs of our customers and employees,’’ company officials said.

Bell spokesman Bill Schroeder has said that Bell has some of the “most highly compensated employees in the aviation and defense industry.” According to the contract proposal, the Bell union workers on average earn base rates of more than $66,518 a year.

While Bell said its proposed contract would provide pay increases of 9 percent over three years, union 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. Company officials have not responded to a request for more details regarding the proposed wage increases.

This summer, the company hired additional contract workers at some of its facilities, it said, to fill in for union workers who refused to work overtime. In its statement Friday, it said that it intended to keep manufacturing operations alive with help from those workers and other Bell employees.

Mitch Wilcenski, 63, who picketed Friday morning, said workers simply want a “decent contract.”

Staff writer Deanna Boyd contributed to this report.

Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705 Twitter: @yberard Lee Williams, 817-390-7840 Twitter: @leewatson

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