7/28/07

Striking Machinists 'humiliate' scabs

In and around tents set up outside the entrance gate to Kennedy Space Center, members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 2061 sit in defiance of their employer, United Space Alliance. As of today, the union's strike over stalled contract negotiations with the company - NASA's main space shuttle contractor - has gone on for 45 days, still with no end in sight, according to both sides.

The strike by an estimated 450 to 500 blue-collar workers in the shuttle program has developed into an exercise in labor rights - and management's ability to adapt to it - not often seen on the Space Coast. Local 2061 leaders - some who have worked at the Space Center for more than 30 years - said their union has gone on strike several times through the years, more than any other union at the Space Center, as far as they can remember. "The membership in this local has a strong desire to stand up for themselves," Local 2061 President Lew Jamieson said.

With the shuttle program scheduled to end in three years, it raises the likelihood of a conflict, as both sides can see a potential end to their income, said Bruce Nissen, director of the Center for Labor Research and Studies at Florida International University in Miami.

The company could have the upper hand in the standoff if, as it has said, it has been getting by without the strikers without problems, Nissen said.

United Space Alliance - a joint venture of aerospace and defense giants Lockheed Martin Corp. and The Boeing Co. - said it is doing fine without the strikers.

A portion of the 570-member union's bargaining unit never joined the strike, and some have crossed the picket lines, while the company has hired 64 replacement workers, and assigned other workers extra duties.

Leverage issue

"The way I would describe it is everything is going safely, smoothly and on schedule," United Space Alliance spokeswoman Tracey Yates said about preparations for the launch of shuttle Endeavour, scheduled for Aug. 7.

"In situations like this, it's routine for the company to say everything is OK," Nissen said. "There always a lot of posturing" by both sides.

If the company is truly coping well without the workers, and the union does not have support from the community or other political forces, the strikers could be at a disadvantage. A lot of it depends on how difficult it would be to replace them permanently, Nissen said.

"The real difference is," he added, "what kind of leverage do they have?"

The strikers said the walkout isn't just about money. It's also about respect. They described feeling "beaten down," as the company pushes to meet its deadlines and "milestones" for the shuttle program.

The strikers said they believe professionals at the Space Center look down on them because "we don't have college degrees."

The other day, someone they believe worked at the Space Center driving by the picket line tossed out a leaflet to the strikers, they said.

The leaflet - which they showed to a reporter - depicted a photo of the strikers holding signs on the picket line with the face of the caveman from the Geico insurance commercials superimposed on their faces.

"So easy a caveman can do it," the leaflet read, a reference to the Geico commercials, as well as the workers who have been assigned to do the strikers' jobs.

However, the strikers said, they are the ones who do the physical jobs that keep the Space Center running - including day-to-day maintenance work that, contrary to what the company has said, is falling behind, according to "our people inside."

On another occasion, the strikers said, someone driving through the gate swerved at them to give them a scare. Some others going into the Space Center raise their middle fingers as they drive by, they said.

'I hate scabs'

The strikers said such actions are indicative of the resentment that is building among the company's white-collar workers for having to do extra work, outside their normal job descriptions, during the strike.

Meanwhile, tensions over those who cross the picket line are obvious.

"They can burn in hell," said Larry Tucker, a Local 2061 striker who has worked at the Space Center for 37 years. "I hate scabs. They're low-life scum."

At the picket site on North Courtenay Parkway, the strikers have put up a sign by the road listing the names of nearly 30 workers who have crossed the line.

"To humiliate them," Tucker said.

In one case, a United Space Alliance employee who recently crossed the picket line and returned to work said he found his car and home vandalized. James Celli of Port St. John told police he found all four tires on his car flattened and the words "scab" sprayed in black paint on his car and garage.

No one has been charged, and the Brevard County Sheriff's Office has not received any other reports of such vandalism.

Jamieson, the union's president, said the public shouldn't jump to conclusions about the vandalism in Port St. John.

"It's premature and callous to even insinuate that it was a Machinists' union member," he said.

$150 a week

The strikers, meanwhile, said they are finding ways to make ends meets. The union pays strikers $150 for eight hours a week on the picket line. Some work extra shifts for extra money, while taking odd jobs on the side. The strikers said some of their colleagues have found permanent jobs, and are never expected to return.

The picket line at the North Courtenay entrance resembles a refugee camp.

The only house in sight is occupied by a former member of the United Auto Workers union, who has allowed the strikers to draw electricity from his property to power fans and lights under the tents on the picket line, at the union's expense.

Under the tents, amid the grass and the dirt, there are barbecue grills, stacks of drinks, a refrigerator, lawn chairs, even a makeshift bulletin board. At least several strikers at a time are expected to man that and other picket sites around the clock.

Of the 570 members of Local 2061, nearly 500 are on strike, Jamieson estimated.

According to the company's calculations, that number is lower -- 449. Yates said 94 workers are not part of the strike. That includes a number who are part of the union's collective-bargaining unit, but don't pay dues and are not considered full-fledged members. It does not include 27 workers who have been on a leave of absence since before the strike, she said.

"Some USA employees who are performing replacement tasks are working overtime hours," Yates said. "That's not unusual. IAM workers routinely put in overtime when they were on the job."

Yates said she doesn't think anyone from management has even spoken to the union's leadership since the strike started June 14.

Still, the stressfulness of the walkout is evident on both sides, as they have been careful not to say anything publicly about the bargaining issues and each other that would inflame the situation, and make chances for a settlement less likely.

When asked if the company is willing to never bring the strikers back to work, Yates said: "That isn't the goal. I can't speculate on the future and what's going to happen."

The union's leadership, meanwhile, has cautioned the strikers to choose their words carefully when speaking with the news media.

"We've told them this strike can't be won in the press, but it can be lost in the press," Jamieson said.

(floridatoday.com)

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