Victory for Chicagoland auto mechanics after seven-week strike
On the picket line. | Scott Marshall/PW

Keri Rautenkranz is a regular Peoples World contributor, an auto mechanic in the Chicago area, and one of the victorious workers of AMU Local 701.

After a grueling seven-week strike for a fair contract, 1,944 members of Chicago’s Automobile Mechanics Union Local 701, I.A.M. signed a victorious contract Sunday morning. The strike succeeded in making gains on all the main issues that were at stake and also caused the virtual collapse of our opponents, the Chicagoland New Car Dealership Committee (NCDC), headed by a notorious union-busting law firm, had taken a “hardline” stance against the workers since the beginning of negotiations.

After taking major concessions over the last two contracts, the members of Local 701 finally had enough, particularly when the NCDC elected to take a hardline stance from the beginning, first refusing to negotiate at all for over a month and then demanding reduction or outright elimination of healthcare and pension benefits.

Then, in late July, at the last hour of the last day, just before the end of the previous contract, they presented a “Last, Best, and Final Offer (LBFO)” that was essentially the previous contract with slight pay increases and a 50 percent increase in employee healthcare contributions.

The employers’ offer was soundly rejected by the members of Local 701’s Standard Automotive Agreement committee the very next morning, Sunday, July 30, and the members cast a strong (82 percent) strike vote the same day.

Mechanics hit the picket lines on Tuesday, August 1. The dealerships’ reactions were of stunned disbelief but quickly settled into two distinct types of behavior. The first group, realizing that skilled auto mechanics are extremely difficult to replace, treated the strikers well. The second group, however, chose to take a more hostile approach, locking the strikers out of the premises, denying the mechanics access to their own tools left on site, continually spreading misinformation and fear tactics to both the strikers and public, and in extreme cases, even firing entire shops full of mechanics and pushing large toolboxes full of very expensive tools ($10,000-$100,000 each) out into the rain.

After collecting their wits, the leadership of the NCDC set about a heartless tack, refusing to do any meaningful negotiating for two weeks and then presenting a second “LBFO” that was essentially the same as the first, but with a “Punishment Clause” (!).

This second “Last, Best, and Final Offer” was also soundly rejected by around 80 percent of 701’s affected membership. At this time, Local 701 strikers were continuing to stand strong, with very high attendance on the lines and near total solidarity.

The NCDC’s reaction to their latest utter failure was to go completely inhumane and wait until the striker’s health insurance ran out, which would take around another 2-3 weeks.

Employers split; workers remain united

This unconscionable tactic quickly backfired however, as some on their own side began to break ranks. A number dealers resigned from the NCDC and signed the union’s proposed Fair Contract as an interim measure.

Once the ice had been broken by a handful of dealers, several more followed, totaling 29 out of the original 130. This courageous action allowed roughly one quarter of our fellow workers to return to work. The NCDC responded by filing lawsuits against the fleeing dealers as well as the union!

With their plans of destroying the union disintegrating, the leadership of the NCDC was forced back to the negotiating table, this time on the defensive. They still waited until our health insurance ran out and then made a third “Last, Best, and Final Offer” that actually wasn’t too bad, but was considerably less than what the 29 breakaway dealers had already accepted.

This third “LBFO” was voted on by Local 701’s membership, and was also soundly rejected.

At this point, the bottom fell out of the NCDC and dealerships, even some of the most brutal ones, started jumping ship faster than we could sign them into Fair Contracts. By this past Saturday, some 70 dealers of the original 130 had split from the NCDC, with another 20 waiting to sign contracts.

Striker Keri Rautenkranz, 23-year auto mechanic at Lexus Dealership in Naperville, Ill. | Roberta Wood/PW

In comparison, on our side, the total number of scabs worked out to only EIGHT out of 1,944 strikers.

So, a vote was called by Local 701 for Sunday, Sept. 17 to ratify the New Standard Automotive Contract. The contract was passed with an over 80 percent yes vote, and the mechanic’s strike of 2017 is now officially over.

What the mechanics won

So, what is so radical about this contract that 130 new car dealerships were willing to wager many tens of millions of dollars in order to defeat it?

There were five main points, other than our first meaningful hourly pay increase in over 8 years:

1.) An increase in the “Minimum Guarantee” from getting paid 34 hours of pay for 40 hours’ work, to 35 hours for the first 3 years, and 36 on the fourth. Yes, we are frequently cheated out of up to 15 percent of our pay—until now.

2.) The reduction of the “Flex Work Week,” a provision so cruel that three-fourths of the dealerships don’t even use it. The “Flex” deprives many of our workers of two consecutive days off in a week, which both destroys family life and ruins our physical recovery from a (literally) back-breaking job.

3.) Partial repair of the Apprenticeship Program, shortening the time spent as an apprentice from ten years to five. Why should it take more time to become a car mechanic than a doctor? To pad dealer profits, that’s why!

4.) Providing a path to advancement for our “semi-skilled” members, who previously could be kept at extremely low wages indefinitely. Why? Same reason as #3.

5.) A freeze of our weekly contribution towards our healthcare benefit.

I offer my thanks to everyone who offered their solidarity, support, and understanding in this unnecessarily prolonged and difficult, but ultimately successful strike.

Especially and particularly I would like to thank my fellow workers, the staff and leadership of both Local 701 and the I.A.M., and of course the dealerships who broke ranks with the cruel and counterproductive leadership of their own association.

This strike may be over, but the struggle of the working class continues.


CONTRIBUTOR

Keri Rautenkranz
Keri Rautenkranz

Keri Rautenkranz is a regular People’s World contributor and an auto mechanic in the Chicago area, one of the victorious workers of AMU Local 701.

Comments

comments

MOST POPULAR