12/30/07

Car dealership strike enters month 3

The door to the service garage at Valley Ford in Hazelwood (MO) tells customers to honk for service, but since Nov. 1, the dealership's union workers have asked passing motorists to honk for a different reason: support for their strike.

Eighteen members of International Association of Machinists District 9 Local Lodge 777 and 10 members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 618 walked out after the dealership and unions failed to reach agreement on separate labor contracts.

Nearly two months into the strike, workers continue to picket the dealership. But many have begun to apply for other work.

"(The strike) has split the family up," said Bill Lewis, 44, of Maplewood, referring to the group of co-workers. Lewis, who has spent 14 years with Valley Ford, said this would be a sad end to his time with this group.

"To us, it's a no-win situation," he said. "Even if (Valley Ford) did negotiate now, it would be hard to go back and work for them."

Frank Sprich, president of Valley Ford, declined requests for comment.

While agreements are still possible, workers were discouraged when bargaining was not completed in the fall when most unionized dealerships renewed expiring labor contracts. Workers said they were surprised when Valley Ford rejected terms that were the same offered at other unionized dealerships.

"The workers were willing to take what had been established in the marketplace and the company came to the table with a different mind-set," said Tony Rippeto, business representative for IAM District 9. The IAM represents mechanics and other service department employees.

Rippeto said Valley Ford's proposal included concessions in excess of $8 per hour in compensation, which included the loss of their pension plan and increased employee health benefits costs.

Last week, the dealership held its first negotiations since the strike began, meeting only with Teamsters representatives, but no progress was made, said Tom Cole, a trustee and business agent for the local Teamsters. The union represents porters and parts department employees.

Most of these workers have withstood past strikes, most recently in 2004, when about 1,300 service workers went on a 76-day strike against dealerships. That strike was led by the Machinists, with Teamsters refusing to cross picket lines.

But some workers doubt a resolution will come this time, in part, because of a change in Valley Ford's negotiating strategy.

For more than 30 years, most local dealers banded together and negotiated as a single group, called a signatory group. This year, the signatory group that negotiated with Machinists dissolved, freeing dealers to bargain with their own workers.

Once the Machinists group dissolved, Valley Ford chose to negotiate all its labor contracts, leaving the signatory group that bargained with Teamsters.

Some workers think that move was made with purpose.

"They're trying to bust the union," said Jerry Vaughan, 60, while walking the picket line early in the strike.

Vaughan has been a service technician at Valley Ford since 1987, though he accepted his first job there in 1967. But he doubts Valley Ford will be his last employer.

As general manager of Absolute Perfect Touch Limousine service in Hazelwood, Jeff Ellefson has had his vehicles serviced at Valley Ford for eight years. He is not crossing the picket line, but said he might next month because other Ford dealerships are so far away.

"I told my mechanic from day one, 'I'm not going to cross the line right now,'" he said. "But you might ask me in 60 days and it might be different."

(stltoday.com))

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