By Ronald King
Harmony and optimism gave way to discord and strike in the Wiregrass this weekend. Only 48 hours after the 2014 Daleville High School Junior-Senior Prom was held April 25 at the new tornado resistant International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) Local Lodge 2003, the nearly 3000 members of the IAMAW union held a strike vote. After the “last, best and final” contract proposal was presented to the membership yesterday evening, one of the final bastions of workers’ rights in southern Alabama voted to walk out on their government contracted employer, L3 Communications Army Fleet Support, starting at 12:01AM on 28 April 2014. While some sources have reported that the contract was rejected due to pay issues, union sources and striking workers state that the long five-year term of the contract, new overtime policies, and health insurance issues were the real triggers.
In the past, union contracts have held to a three year term rather than the current five year proposal. L3 Communications may be trying to lock their workers into a longer term agreement as the Army looks forward to downsizing the rotary wing fleet and changing training platforms from the current TH-67 Creek helicopter to LUH-72 Lakota. This transition will undoubtedly cause changes in the maintenance and upkeep programs of their workhorse training aircraft, as well as setting new qualification requirements for aircraft mechanics who would be locked into a 5 year contract. Even cell phone companies don’t force that on their customers.
The US military runs a 24-7 operation and often flies at night, so aircraft maintainers must frequently work extra hours to keep the fleet flying. The current overtime program has been in place for over 50 years and is well accepted by the workforce. The proposed changes in the overtime policy are also a major source of friction between the L3 and the IAMAW in last night’s vote. In particular, critics of the contract pointed to the way that overtime rosters would be developed and implemented. These changes were seen as being far less equitable, stripping away some of the benefits of seniority and potentially allowing supervisors to play favorites.
Another major issue were the health insurance provisions, particularly the way that L3 will be able to pass on any penalties incurred under the Affordable Care Act to the workers. By law, companies with more than 50 workers must make affordable health insurance that meet minimum healthcare standards available to their employees. Those companies who do not must pay a penalty (or as the proposed contract calls it, an “assessable payment”) for every worker that goes on to the ACA marketplace to get subsidies to pay for health insurance. The proposed contract states that if “the company determines that it may be required to pay an ‘assessable payment’…parties will meet to negotiate so that no such payment, tax, penalty or other liability will be incurred.” In other words, the union will have to renegotiate this portion of the contract if L3 chooses not to properly take care of their employees’ health needs under the law, effectively passing the burden of healthcare costs on to the worker. However, it is one sided – benefiting management only – since labor is not granted the same opportunity to bring the company back to the table, if labor wants to renegotiate aspects of the health plan.
Dr. Jennifer Marsden, running for Alabama State House in the Wiregrass, delivered cases of bottled water and soft drinks to strike headquarters in support of the machinists. “Supporting the best is what these diligent, hardworking, Fighting Machinists do every day,” she said. “They are the unsung heroes of Fort Rucker’s massive aviation training program that teaches our young men and women to fly and fight in the world’s premiere Aviation Branch. IAMAW 2003 members work tirelessly to keep our aircraft mission ready and keep our instructors and students safe in the air.” Marsden went on to say that she fully backs the union in their endeavor to obtain an evenhanded, rational and equitable contract that does not penalize workers for corporate mistakes. “Cheap labor conservatism has put the Wiregrass into a deep stall while corporate profit and executive pay continue to soar. I hope for a contract which allows all parties to fly high together. SOLIDARITY!”
“Above the Best!” is the motto of the US Army Aviation Branch and is recited by security personnel to every visitor going through the gates of Fort Rucker Alabama. This morning, however, the gates of Fort Rucker were a picket line of striking aviation mechanics who regularly support the Army Aviation Center of Excellence with mission critical maintenance support. Without the mechanics, flight training is grounded. This is the first instance of the IAMAW striking at Fort Rucker in over 30 years.