4/17/08

UAW strike v. General Dynamics, day 3

Related General Dynamics stories: here

A barrel of smoldering firewood was the main source of heat on the picket line Monday as United Auto Workers/United Defense Workers began their third full day of a strike against General Dynamics Armament and Technical Products’ Marion facilities.

There was no fiery rhetoric against the company, just labor union members picketing at five stations along Brunswick Lane and Johnston Road. No anger. Just a few demands.

At the main entrance off Brunswick, more than a dozen strikers marched with “UAW on strike” signs in the cold as rain and snow threatened. Among them was Ron Blevins, chosen as the workers’ spokesman because he was their negotiator in four weeks of talks with GDATP administrators that broke off late Friday, followed that evening by UAW officials’ decision to have the Marion local go on strike.

“We want our seniority,” Blevins said, laying out much of the union’s position all at once. “They’re messing with our seniority. They’re cutting pensions for new employees. They’re putting new hires on a progressive pay scale, starting them out lower. It takes them three years to get up to the pay grade where everyone else is. They drop insurance on people as soon as they’re laid off. Insurance had been continuing for a year. They want to transfer people from department to department. They could lay off somebody for five days and bring in somebody who’s not been there long at that pay level. The price of benefits is up. The price of the prescription plan is up. They’re just wanting to go backward.”

The union had been in talks with local GDATP officials for a month “on a continuing basis,” Blevins said, after the union could not agree with changes in GDATP’s compensation and benefits package.

“They act like they’re listening, but they’re not really listening,” Blevins said. Nor have they been talking since Friday. “They’ve not told us anything than what they put in the contract. The company’s not getting back to us. We voted the contract down Friday.”

The company has had little to say to the media, releasing in response to questions a prepared statement from Jim Losse, GDADP’s vice president of general manager advanced materials: “The United Auto Workers - United Defense Workers of America Local 2850 late [sic] are on strike at our Marion facility. Our site has over 350 employees who are currently on strike and over 175 who are not. The site remains open for business and will continue operations to meet customer needs.”

That statement drew a challenge from the strikers who interpreted it as suggesting 175 who could have walked out stayed on the job. On Monday after the statement appeared in local news outlets over the weekend, striker Mike Husketh said, “The 175 working are all salaried, not production workers.”

“No production workers,” his wife and co-worker Sharon Husketh echoed. “We’ve had no scabs as of this morning”—a slang reference to union members who break ranks and work in spite of ongoing strikes.

Asked for a response from her or Losse to the strikers’ interpretation and for a description of the positions of those working, GDATP spokeswoman Gail Warner said only that the 175 are “non-union employees who, of course, not being union, are not on strike.”

A delivery truck slowed on Brunswick Lane, its driver signaling his intent to make a right turn into GDATP’s main entrance. Pickers blocked the way, not so much in defiance of the trucker but rather in showing no haste in pausing their circular march to stand aside. A few chanted, “Don’t cross, don’t cross” though as a suggestion, rather than an ultimatum.

“If he wants in, you gotta let him in,” Blevins said to the rest of the strikers.
One of the strikers disappeared around the front of the truck to talk with its driver and soon reported the driver said if it were up to him, he would not cross the line.
The picketers paused and let the truck through.

Blevins has been in the union for 10 years, and this is the first strike he’s seen. The last one against General Dynamics, as he recalled, was 1991 and centered on similar issues. But the New York Times reported in June 1994 that 2,000 UAW members walked off their General Dynamics jobs in three states.

“Officials of the General Dynamics Corporation would not describe the concessions the company is seeking,” NYT writer James Bennet wrote. “But U.A.W. officials said the company wanted employees of its tank-making operation to begin making co-payments for health care, give up some vacation time and take a cut in their life insurance policies.” GDATP, based in Charlotte, N.C., is a business unit of General Dynamics, headquartered in Falls Church. GD employs approximately 82,600 people worldwide and had 2006 revenues of $24.1 billion, its Web site said.

Day three of the Marion strike opened with no end in sight. In fact, plywood shacks erected for shelter stood at other places along Brunswick Lane where workers stood and waved at passersby.

“The president of the union said we’re here for the duration,” Blevins said.
That also means around the clock. Striker Cheri Frye said the union members were required to picket four hours every fourth day, though some have put in 8- and 10-hour shifts.

A company security guard, and sometimes two, stood nearby. One, who said he was not supposed to comment, acknowledged the strike had been peaceful.

The strikers’ pay and insurance continue during the strike, although the pay comes at a reduced rate, Blevins said. He’s not endangering his ability to pay for gasoline and groceries, whose prices inch up almost daily – by striking. In fact, he said, gas and food have “a lot to do with why we’re out here. We can’t afford to go backwards.”

A car passed the GDATP entrance, and the driver blew a greeting on the car’s horn. Community support has been strong and several businesses have shown their support by providing food and drinks, Blevins said. He declined to name them. Instead, he said, the union will show appreciation for its supporters when the strike is all over.

From all indications Monday, the union’s thank-you notes may not go out any time soon.

(swvatoday.com)

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