Bell, union agree on new contract

 - July 27, 2009, 7:13 AM

A six-week strike at Bell Helicopter Textron’s transmission and rotor-blade component plants in Texas ended after union members ratified a revised four-year contract offer on July 22 and returned to work on July 27.

Some 2,500 members of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 218 went on strike on June 14 after rejecting an initial three-year offer from Bell that increased wages, but also increased the share of employee-paid health-care costs. The union had also objected to what it said was Bell’s plan to eliminate 44 unionized janitors and reduce the number of union representatives. This was the first strike at Bell in 22 years.

The company maintained that it needed higher employee contributions to its health-care plan to remain competitive, claiming its health-care costs for its UAW employees were 16-percent higher than for employees of competitors and that its UAW employees paid only 3 to 4 percent of their actual medical costs, while the average for the industry is 20 to 29 percent.

The helicopter manufacturer initially offered a package that included a $4,500 signing bonus and a complicated raise formula that Bell claimed would average 18.7 percent over the course of the three-year contract.

However, the union maintained that the higher cost of health care under the plan would increase the average worker’s contribution from $80 to $300 per month, more than the value of the bonus and raises.

It also disputed the company’s valuation of the wage increases. Bell called the offer its “last, best and final,” and the union’s national leadership and local bargaining committee had recommended its acceptance prior to the June 14 strike vote.

The four-year contract that the union approved provides for a 3-percent general wage increase in the fourth year, three different health-care options and a $3,500 ratification bonus payable on July 31.

Crossing the Picket Line
The striking plants had been scheduled to be closed over the July Fourth week for routine maintenance. After the strike began, Bell kept the factories open and brought in 1,000 replacement workers from other parts of the company, including its U.S. Helicopters subsidiary and furloughed workers from Cessna Aircraft Company, also owned by Textron. Some members of Local 218 also crossed the picket line and returned to work.

The union claimed that the replacement workers were ineffective. Although Local 218 did not return AIN’s repeated calls for comment, Tom Wells, chairman of Local 218’s bargaining committee, on July 13 wrote on the local’s Web site, “The company is claiming that they are doing fine without us which is [expletive deleted].” He said the plants were “chaotic.”

As temperatures on the picket line reached 105 degrees last month, tempers flared and there were numerous reports of plant gate “accidents,” including a hit-and-run.

Although a Bell spokesman told AIN that the company was meeting its commitments to its customers, evidence from the field suggested that the strike affected spares availability for some of Bell’s large, civil-fleet customers.

The majority of Bell’s plants– those that make civil helicopters in Canada and military plants in Amarillo, Texas, that make helicopters including the V-22 tiltrotor–are non-union and the com- pany said the strike had no effect on new helicopter deliveries.

By Bell’s calculations, the strikers lost a combined $24.6 million in wages (more than $10,300 per worker), during the strike. These figures include the $4,500 signing bonus contained in Bell’s earlier offer, so some of this loss was recouped with the
final $3,500 bonus. Strikers collected $200 per week in benefits from the UAW.