Machinists vote to end strike at Cummins
Members of Machinists Lodge 1005 voted May 12 to end their strike against Cummins Northwest after 115 days on the picket line. At the same time, "permanent replacements" hired during the labor dispute have filed for a union decertification through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
The company, which holds a franchise from Cummins Engine Company for diesel engine repair work, operates branches throughout the Pacific Northwest. The Parts Distribution Center at Swan Island in Portland, where most of the strikers worked, supplies parts to the company's branches and also to outside customers. The company also holds franchises for Onan electrical generators and Thermo-King refrigeration units.
Twenty-four Parts Department employees went on strike Jan. 18 after rejecting a final offer for a new contract. They had been working without a contract since Nov. 30, 1998, and had previously rejected four almost identical final offers. They were seeking wage and pension increases comparable to those the union negotiated in 1997 for 54 mechanics covered by a separate labor agreement with the same Machinists local.
According to Dave Plant, directing business representative of Machinists District Lodge 24, members voted to accept the employer's last offer because they recognized that all their other options were worse.
"The clear goal of the company, which began trying to hire scabs as soon as the strike began, was to prolong the strike in an effort to decertify the union." said Plant. "We know all too well the tactics used by union-busters."
The Machinists offered in federal mediation April 29 to accept the economic terms of the employer's last offer if it returned the strikers to work. "The company dismissed our strike settlement proposal out of hand," Plant said. "Clearly, the company did not want a settlement on any terms. Cummins Northwest wanted the union out, and was willing to prolong the strike to achieve that."
In an attempt to spoil the union decertification plan, Parts Department members decided to accept whatever terms were available for a settlement, Plant said. "Our members didn't want to play into the company's hands by allowing their union to be thrown out. They also recognized that their union brothers, the mechanics who had honored their picket lines for almost four months, should no longer suffer if no light was visible at the end of the tunnel," Plant said.
Union officials tried to get a signature on the agreement immediately after it was ratified May 12 but James J. Frazer, labor relations director for the United Employers Association, was nowhere to be found.
At a meeting May 14 the company acknowledged receipt of the ratification vote but "would not come to any kind of conclusion as to how workers would return," said Business Representative Gary Carver.
"Obviously Frazer's strategy was to prolong the strike until Cummins had hired enough scabs to outnumber the strikers for any NLRB election that might be held," Plant said. "He had to string it out until he was sure he had enough votes."
Strikers are ordinarily eligible to vote in a representation election held within one year of the date the strike began. Cummins Northwest has refused to reveal how many permanent replacements were hired during the strike, but the union believes the number to be 18.
In the federal mediation session April 29, Frazer told the Machinists there were no jobs currently available for the striking union members, Plant said.
Under federal law, if strikers have been permanently replaced they have preferential rights over future new hires for any available openings once the strike is over.
However, the employer may pick and choose which of the former strikers to bring back, with no regard for seniority.
One of the striking employees took his own life on April 28 after being told he had no job to return to. Sam Randall, a counterman who was the senior employee in the Parts Department, had been employed at the Parts Distribution Center since it opened. In his last will and testament, written just before his death, he said he just couldn't take any more of what the company was doing to him.
Plant said that such tragedies will be repeated as long as the United States continues to allow the permanent replacement of strikers. "You can't legally be fired for striking, but you can be permanently replaced. If you're the one permanently replaced, it's damned hard to tell the difference," he said. "Our members courageously fought the battle, but with the laws rigged against them, the good guys don't always win."
Carver said about 11 mechanics have returned to work since the ratification vote and were welcomed back by several adverse rule changes.
Carver said Cummins NW has changed the job descriptions of some managers so that they are no longer part of the bargaining unit. "They also implemented a three-page anti-harassment policy and they're talking about ending swing shift, lead people and road service - all in direct violation of our contract," he said.
Cummins has filed a lawsuit against the union claiming that it suffered damages as a result of the strike in the amount of $500,000, plus $15,000 for each day the walkout continued.
Cummins alleges that the union negotiating committee promised to, but did not, recommend the offer rejected by Parts Department employees on the morning the strike began and that the union violated the no-strike clause of the mechanics' labor agreement by coercing the mechanics to honor the Parts Department picket lines.
"The allegations are patently absurd," said Plant.
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