Chicago auto mechanics reject a bad deal

August 22, 2017

Kevin Moore and Mike Shea report from Chicago on an ongoing strike by mechanics at dealerships, who are trying to win a better contract.

STRIKING CHICAGO-AREA auto dealership mechanics rejected the New Car Dealer Committee's (NCDC) latest contract offer on August 12, voting the deal down 1,200 to 300.

Some 2,000 members of the Automobile Mechanics' Local 701 have been out on strike since August 1, and are walking the picket line at around 130 new car dealerships in Chicago and the suburbs.

The turnout for Saturday's vote was higher than the vote on the dealers' last offer at the end of July. Despite having to go back to the picket lines without a date set for the next round of negotiations, morale is high. "We figured it would be a bad contract," said one mechanic. "After the vote, some mechanics grabbed picket signs from the trunk of their cars and went back to striking."

The sentiment among many mechanics was that they had a long fight ahead of them. The union's strike update page points out, "Rather than remaining at the bargaining table with the assistance of a federal mediator, the NCDC is unfortunately more focused on trying to 'win' the strike."

Chicago mechanics remain on the picket line
Chicago mechanics remain on the picket line

Dealers are using many methods to grind down mechanics on the picket line. Time is one tactic. Some mechanics view the absence of a date for negotiations serves the purpose drawing out the strike out, what one mechanic described as "an endurance race to see who can last the longest."

The Dealers Committee thinks the strikers' line will begin to break when health insurance for the journeymen runs out in the next five weeks. They also hope that the union's strike fund won't last, but some mechanics say there is enough to allow the mechanics to hold out for a year.

The dealers are also using fear tactics and intimidation against workers. According to the local's strike update, "Some are forcing their employees to remove their toolboxes from the shop--sending the message that they are not welcome back. Some are calling the police and making false accusations against the strikers."

A few mechanics who spoke with said that at the dealership level, management is beginning to cut costs by laying off personnel, and the Dealers Committee are telling individual dealers to keep a count of how many mechanics are on the line every day.

Strikers also said that not all dealers are willing to stoop so low. Local 701 states that there are dealers looking to break from the Dealers Committee to bargain with the union directly.

WHAT THE mechanics of Local 701 want isn't controversial or complex. They simply want to be compensated fairly for the work they do.

The mechanics are fighting for three core demands: a guaranteed 40 hours a week and increase in base pay, a five-day workweek, and no increase on their health insurance co-payment.

Currently, mechanics work under a flex week, which is six days on and four days off. Management argues the hours are necessary to meet customer demand, but it comes at the expense of mechanics who are unable to spend time with their families.

But the fight over schedules wasn't even brought up at the last bargaining meeting. "They [the Dealers Committee] didn't bargain on the flex week," journeyman Mark Mendez. "They told us to take it or nothing."

The most contentious of the demands is the fight over the 40-hour guaranteed workweek and an increase in base pay. According to journeyman Jose Ortiz, "We want an increase in base pay. We haven't had one in eight years."

The 40-hour guarantee is high on the list of demands due to incentive pay. The mechanics are currently guaranteed to be paid for 34 hours, and incentives are supposed to kick in after those hours have been booked. However, the incentive system contains several obstacles and is punitive.

Mechanics say that it's not uncommon for management to show favoritism in terms of distributing work. On its face, the incentive system looks like a great deal for the customer, the mechanics and the dealers. Ideally mechanics will finish a job quickly, create room for more work, and in turn increase profits for the dealers.

But there is an underside to the incentive system that punishes mechanics more so than it rewards them. There isn't always 34 hours worth of work to be done. If that is the case, a mechanic could be disciplined for not actually doing 34 hours of work.

"If you complete 11.5 hours of work and not 34, you are written up for possible termination," said Ortiz, explaining that the dealer has to pay a mechanic for 34 hours regardless of whether they had vehicles to work on or not. In the eyes of the dealers, it's the mechanics' responsibility to somehow keep the vehicles flowing in and out of the shop while also devoting large chunks of uncompensated and inconsistently compensated labor time repairing vehicles.

Mechanics dislike the incentive system because it reduces the level of quality of their work by putting them "under the gun." Mechanics are expected to complete work on a vehicle quickly for turnover. Yet if a mechanic makes a mistake or gets a complaint, that too can result in a write-up.

"It works in favor of the owners," Jose Ortiz said of the incentive system, adding, "The incentive system only benefits the owners, not the mechanic, not the customer. Do away with this incentive system."

THE MECHANICS of Local 701 don't enjoy telling young people who want to be mechanics not to get into the field because it's expensive when the cost of tools, lack of compensation and cost of schooling are factored in.

Every year, mechanics have to go to school to keep up with new technology, but schooling means little if it's not aligned with economic and technological realities. One mechanic put it very simply, "Schooling has to coincide with automation."

In reference to how far behind mechanics in North America are compared to the rest of the world, a mechanic said, "North America is the only place with book time. Everywhere else is salary."

Striking mechanics are fighting for a contract that in the long run will benefit future apprentices and journeymen. "The union is trying for the benefit of us and to get back what we loss," one striker said. He also offered insight into what the consequences would have been had union members voted "yes" on the recent contract: "Fight it now or forever hold your peace."

At this moment, solidarity is needed to help striking mechanics win a contract that's fair and meets all of their demands. Strikers have received generous amounts of support from labor and the public, and the union strike update page says, "Local 701 would like to thank IBEW Locals 134 and Local 9 as well as the teachers' union for their support. The union would also like to thank the public for its continued support. Not only is local support robust, but the inion is regularly receiving support from people and organizations across the country."

This is an important display of nationwide solidarity, but more is needed.

The mechanics on the picket line also realize the struggle for a fair and strong contract begins with rank-and-file workers. Jose Ortiz said, "We don't want to do this but somebody's got to do it."

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