Atlas Copco workers vote 141 to 1 to strike

Union employees at Atlas Copco Wagner, 1424 NE 158th Ave., Portland, voted 141-to-1 Aug. 4 to authorize a strike. A federal mediation session was held Aug. 16, but at press time it's possible that workers could walk out this week.

Workers at Atlas Copco, a mining equipment manufacturer, are represented by five unions: Boilermakers Local 72, Sign Painters and Paint Makers Local 1094, Machinists Locals 63 and 1005, and Teamsters Local 206. The company, on the other hand, is represented by Jim Frazier, an anti-union consultant who provoked walkouts at Portland's Voith Sulzer and Cummins NW which then permanently replaced the strikers.

Negotiations at Atlas Copco have been in federal mediation since July 17. The contract expired June 1. From the beginning of negotiations, the company has claimed financial hardship and demanded takeaways.

The unions understand that the mining equipment industry is cyclical, says union spokesperson Gene Blackburn of Teamsters Local 206. But normally, Blackburn says, if economic woes were what really motivated company negotiators, they would be amenable to a short-term contract or a contract with a "wage reopener" in which wages could be renegotiated periodically. Atlas Copco is showing no such willingness, and in fact is demanding changes in non-economic areas like disciplining procedures.

Ted Thomas, newly elected business manager of Boilermakers Local 72, is also skeptical of the company's claims of financial hardship, and questions why the company has laid off half its hourly employees in the last few years while keeping its salaried staff happy with continued employment and raises.

Thomas thinks Frazier is trying to maneuver the unions into striking so he can repeat his past tactics. The company's most objectionable demand may be the elimination of health coverage for early retirees. For an early retiree on a fixed income to pay for individual health care coverage in the years before Medicare eligibility would be a burdensome expense, Blackburn explained. Early retirement is important to Atlas Copco employees because working with plate steel or welding becomes very physically difficult for many older workers.

In addition, the company wants to eliminate or reduce earned personal leave time, a hard-won attendance improvement program that workers gave up sick days to procure. And it wants to eliminate protections against termination without "just cause."

The unions are asking for slight pay and pension increases.

At stake are 150 skilled, family-wage jobs; workers at the plant earn an average $16.50 an hour.

"Nobody wants a strike," Blackburn says, "but they're not willing to turn back the clock 20 years on wages and benefits, especially in the current strong job market."

August 20, 1999 issue

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