These mechanics want to fix past concessions

Dennis Kosuth reports from Chicago on a strike that put the brake on greedy dealers.

Mechanics take to the picket line in Chicago (Dennis Kosuth | SW)Mechanics take to the picket line in Chicago (Dennis Kosuth | SW)

SOME 1,700 auto mechanics in Chicago put down their tools and picked up picket signs this past week, effectively shutting down service at around 130 new car dealerships.

Represented by Automobile Mechanics' Local 701, which is part of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the union voted 1,221 to 169 to reject management's latest offer, and the strike began on August 1.

"We provided the dealer association with a comprehensive and realistic proposal," said Local 701 Directing Business Representative Sam Cicinelli in a statement. "We fix things--that's what we do for a living. We're trying to fix this industry. Apparently, the New Car Dealer Committee feels much differently. Their greed continues to drive our industry in a downward spiral circling the bowl. That's not what our members want. So together they made a decision to stand up and fight."

Of the approximately 420 new car dealerships in the Chicago area, 160 are unionized, with 30 of the locations on a different contact schedule, and therefore not striking. While there have been smaller strikes against individual owners in the past, the last time this many auto repair workers were on strike was 1994. According to one worker who struck last time, the four-day stoppage was not successful.

What you can do

Come down to the picket lines and show your support. To find the closest picket line, look at this map.

The local took concessions in contracts following the 2007-08 economic crisis, when new car sales took a nosedive from 16 million annually in 2006 to less than 10 million by 2009. Not only were many consumers unable to afford a new car in times of economic uncertainty, but the credit sections of automakers were unable to offer loans and leases to customers who did want to buy.

General Motors and Chrysler were bailed out by the federal government to the tune of almost $80 billion, and the creditors that facilitate sales and are owned by the auto giants received $17 billion of that. All but $9.3 billion of the bailout was paid back to the government, with the rest picked up by taxpayers.

There was also a federal program called the Cars Allowance Rebate System, more commonly known as "cash for clunkers." Outside of transferring $3 billion more of federal tax money into the pockets of manufacturers and dealerships, it is dubious that this program significantly stimulated the economy.

The companies that were bailed out have all since become profitable again, hiring thousands of workers. Meanwhile, in the same time period, the union's contracts gave concessions to dealerships around health care and wages, and workers' wages have effectively decreased.

The more than $12 billion transferred to the auto companies and their subsidiaries include federal tax dollars paid from auto repair mechanics, whose wages and living standards suffered as a result of a financial crisis they had no hand in creating. This is another example of the truth of a popular Occupy Wall Street slogan: "The banks got bailed out; we got sold out."

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WORKERS ARE therefore completely justified in their struggle to gain back all they've lost over the years. But their demands are not limited to wages.

One of the issues is fairness around work hours. Alex, a veteran mechanic, said, "People don't understand that we can work for 40 hours, and only get paid for 34. When people hear that, they don't think it's legal, but it is here."

The industry standard is currently incentive-based piecework. There is a number of hours that manufacturers determine a job should take, and this is what the customer is billed.

Regardless of whether a mechanic is able to finish the job slower or faster than the accepted amount of time, they receive a set amount of pay. Management can therefore play favorites or punish troublemakers by unequally distributing jobs that are known to take less or more time than the standards state.

According to Alex:

We don't get paid by the hour. Every job takes a certain time, and it's a race to beat that time. Sometime you win, sometimes you lose, and if you lose big, nobody gives you more. One guy could be putting in an engine, which would take a long time--another could be doing what used to be called tune-ups, which are quick. My dealer is fair about it, but I know other places where a few guys book 60 or 70 hours a week, and the rest only book 35 hours a week.

Under the union contract, workers are currently guaranteed a 34-hour minimum week. One of the demands is a 40-hour guarantee, which would be a step toward equalizing the pay differences.

Another issue is for the fair advancement of workers. Much like the skilled trades, there is an apprenticeship program for workers to advance their abilities. Management also has control over if unskilled or semi-skilled workers can advance, therefore arbitrarily limiting their advancement and therefore their pay and job security.

"You can get hired as a lube tech and stay there for 10 years, semi-skilled, doing the same thing, and they don't have to move you up," according to Juan. "It used to be a four-year apprenticeship program, and now it's eight years to become a journeyman and get full pay."

Regarding health care, there were previous contracts when mechanics paid nothing. Today, they currently put $40 a month toward insurance, and management wants that number to go up further. "More and more healthcare costs are slowly being put upon us," said a veteran mechanic, "and if we don't fight, we will end up paying it all. In the non-union shops some are paying $1,200 a month for health care."

There were plans for bargaining to take place on the third day of the strike, but since it didn't happen, the picket lines will likely remain in place for another week.

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SUPPORT HAS been excellent so far, say strikers. "People are passing by all day long and supporting us--all these people honking are giving us energy," said one.

Workers at one dealership who had yet to negotiate their first contract since recently joining Local 701 have been on the receiving end of the worst treatment. Management's claims that since they don't have a contact, they aren't allowed to strike.

The bosses have sent letters via FedEx to the home of each striker, stating that their health insurance coverage has been canceled, that the dealers advertising for scabs and that strikers are responsible for picking up their own tools, which are stored in huge metal boxes the size of sedans.

Unlike most workers, auto repair mechanics are responsible for buying their own tools, which are amassed over many years and are worth tens of thousands of dollars. The Napleton Cadillac dealership in Libertyville, Illinois moved the strikers' toolboxes out of the garage and into the lot. When it started to rain, management pushed the toolboxes back inside--except for one, owned by a 35-year veteran, that was left to rust, because the toolbox supposedly became stuck in the asphalt.

The strike has won strong solidarity. Picket lines have been honored by UPS drivers, car haulers, union freight drivers and dealership workers represented by other unions. In about 75 dealerships, porters and parts department workers are represented by Teamsters Local 731. While their contract doesn't expire until August of next year, they are permitted to honor the picket lines of their colleagues.

Marcos, a union porter who is honoring the mechanics' picket lines, said:

This strike has brought us together. People who never talked to each other are talking to each other. We've strengthened the bonds with co-workers. I'm a member of Teamsters 731, which is a different union, but we are all in this together. We work in the same building, and when our contract comes up for renegotiation, I would hope they would be standing by us as well.

According to a picket captain at another dealership: "Being out here on the line, we've grown closer with guys I didn't know before. I knew their names before, but now we've become one unit, standing together, coming up with ideas on how to work through scheduling, and so forth and so on. We're now one on one with each other."