WICHITA, Kan. – Machinists at the Bombardier Learjet plant walked the picket line early Monday, while the Wichita, Kan.-based company said it will continue operations during the strike.
Traffic at the only gate open for non-striking employees was backed up for more than three miles Monday morning as picketers briefly stopped cars that were attempting to enter.
Bombardier Learjet received a court order Monday — essentially an agreement between the company and the union — that prohibits picketers from using or threatening force, insulting or intimidating employees or defacing property at the plant.
The permanent injunction requires vehicles approaching the entrance to stop at the picket line and gives workers the right to persuade others not to cross the picket lines — as long as they do not obstruct the entrance and let the vehicle pass. The order also regulates the number and size of picket signs.
Workers rejected a five-year contract late Saturday night and went on strike Monday — the second in six years. Both the company and the union say they are willing to negotiate, but no talks have been scheduled yet.
“We do have a strike contingency plan that went into effect that allows us to continue our operations and continue production, delivery and servicing aircraft,” company spokeswoman Peggy Gross said.
The rejected contract offered no raises the first year and a 1 per cent raise for each subsequent year. It would have retained pension plans but increased the cost of health insurance premiums, which union officials said was a main sticking point. The union also felt the proposed contract was too long.
The machinists union represents about 825 workers at the company’s Wichita facility.
Workers made many concessions in 2003 and Bombardier Learjet promised it would make up for those, but that never happened, the union said. In 2006, machinists were on strike for three weeks, the first work stoppage in the Wichita plant’s history. The contract that expired Monday was approved in 2009 amid the nation’s economic downturn.
Machinists spokesman Tony Larkin, who was on the negotiating committee, pushed back on the sentiment coming from some community members who believe aircraft workers make too much money.
“It is ‘greedy aircraft workers’ here who spend money,” he retorted.
Larkin acknowledged it was difficult to vote to go on strike given the weak aircraft market.
“We do recognize things have slowed down — and we don’t want that to be lost — but again we can’t have all the burden put on workers,” Larkin said. “Other sacrifices need to be made by top people.”
Carlos Gazabon, a 59-year-old sheet metal worker who has worked at Bombardier Learjet for 14 years, said once he realized the company wasn’t budging on the contract, he borrowed from his 401k and company stock account in order to pay bills for the next six months.
“My family, they feel security because I am behind the situation,” he said. If he doesn’t need to spend the money, he said he plans to put it back.
He has a month’s worth of groceries in the freezer, five-dozen eggs in the refrigerator and “lots of oats.”
“If you work for a high-class company, you should be a high-class employee … not poor,” he said.
Mike Harrelson, a 42-year-old aircraft mechanic, said he voted for the strike because of the increase in health insurance premiums and the mediocre wage increases. The 17-year Bombardier Learjet veteran also felt the five-year contract was too long.
He said he started preparing for the strike in January by curbing spending and putting more money into his savings account. His wife went back to school to get her license as a registered nurse five years ago in order to give the family steady income during strikes in the somewhat-volatile aircraft market, and has already made arrangements with her employer to work extra shifts during the strike.
“We played it smart as a family,” Harrelson said.
Tony Spicer, plant chairman for the machinists, said most of the workers are older than 50 and health care costs were important to them. He also noted that when the economy is good, the company wants a shorter contract, but when the economy is poor, it wants a longer contract.
“When times are bad, they want to lock us in,” Spicer said.