Strike averted at Vigor shipyards

By Don McIntosh

Shipyard workers in Portland and the Puget Sound voted to ratify a new four-year multi-union contract with Vigor Marine on March 28, after previously turning down two contract offers and authorizing a strike. That’s after Vigor made significant improvements to its previous contract offer at a March 12 bargaining session attended by a federal mediator.

The new master agreement covers workers in 10 international unions at shipyards in Portland, Seattle and Port Angeles, Washington that are owned by subsidiaries of Vigor Industrial LLC. Currently the shipyards employ about 700 union members under Metal Trades Council master agreements, but the numbers can swell by several hundred when bigger ship maintenance jobs come in.

The new agreement raises wages $4.35 an hour across the board: $1.05 upon ratification, followed by another $1.05 on Dec. 1, 2018; $1.10 on Dec. 1, 2019; and $1.15 on Dec. 1, 2020.

It also goes some distance toward addressing what had been a key sticking point for many workers: The need to work on the weekend without getting premium pay for it. Under the new agreement, the clock starts ticking at midnight Sunday, and any hours employees work after that — or are scheduled to work — count toward the 40-hour threshold at which point time-and-a-half overtime pay begins. That means if workers are sent home or kept home for things like inclement weather, they’ll now get credit for the hours they were expecting to work. When ships are in, work commonly goes on around the clock, so the change means that workers will be more likely to get overtime pay on weekends.

Workers from all unions will enroll in the Laborers health trust

For Metal Trades Council workers at the Portland shipyard, the new contract also implements a truly original solution to hold the line on health care costs.

The Portland shipyard workers have been getting health insurance through an employer-sponsored health plan, but costs have been going up considerably. Vigor is currently paying $7.72 an hour for the coverage.

Starting July 1, 2018, the Portland Metal Trades Council workers will all be enrolled in the multi-employer Oregon Laborers-Employers Health and Welfare Trust — even though most are not members of the Laborers union. Trustees for the Laborers health plan approved the change, which would also benefit its approximately 2,000 existing members by increasing their purchasing power.

“We cracked the door open on something that’s non-traditional,” said Portland Metal Trades Council chief negotiator Pat Christensen.

The Laborers health trust offers Kaiser and Regence options at higher benefit levels than the Portland Metal Trades workers are currently getting, and at lower cost — currently $6.32 an hour. Vigor will continue paying its current contribution of $7.72 an hour, and the $1.40 an hour difference will at first pay the costs of transitioning into the Laborers Trust. Once those are paid, by about January 2019, the $1.40 will be paid into newly-established retirement annuity accounts for workers. Then, over the life of the contract, any premium increases from the Laborers trust would come out of that $1.40 contribution, so that workers won’t need to divert any of their wage increases toward health premiums. Workers will also see their deductibles drop from $750 a year under the employer plan to $200 in the Laborers trust.

At the Puget Sound shipyards, where workers weren’t in the company-sponsored plan, Vigor will continue to make contributions to each union’s multi-employer health fund.

Under the new agreement, Vigor will also continue to contribute to union pension trusts, and the contract commits it to pay 20 percent of all mandated pension contribution increases at trusts that are trying to make up for losses in the 2008 financial market downturn. The contract does permit Vigor to bargain to leave any of the pension plans, in the event that they are headed for insolvency, and under certain specified conditions. Leaving would require that Vigor pay enough to ensure that the trust can keep pension promises for all its employees, a lump sum known as “withdrawal liability.”

Also under the new contract, all new hires will be enrolled by default in a 401(k) tax-deferred retirement savings plan in which they contribute 4 percent of their gross pay, and Vigor matches that amount. Incumbent workers can participate on the same terms by opting in.

The new agreement runs through Nov. 30, 2021. The Metal Trades Council did not disclose the contract vote tally, except to say that it was approved by a majority. Bargaining team members from all the participating unions were recommending a yes vote.

UA Local 290 representative Pat Christensen, who led negotiations for the Portland Metal Trades Council, called the contract a big win, and said it wasn’t easy to pull off until Vigor saw that members weren’t ready to accept the previous offers.

The master agreement was bargained jointly by the unions of the Portland Metal Trades Council and the Puget Sound Metal Trades Council, with the involvement of the Metal Trades Department of the national AFL-CIO. Members of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters at the shipyards bargain separately because that union isn’t part of the AFL-CIO.

At the Portland shipyard, the Metal Trades workforce includes members of Boilermakers Local 104, Insulators Local 36, IBEW Local 48, Laborers Local 737, Machinists District Lodge W24, Operating Engineers Local 701, Painters District Council 5, Plumbers and Fitters Local 290, Sheet Metal Workers Local 16, and Teamsters Local 162.

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