EAST HARTFORD, Conn. - Machinist union members at Pratt & Whitney ratified a new contract last weekend, following a valiant fight on the shop floor, in the street and at the bargaining table to stop plant closings and save job security language. Their tactics preserved the unity of the workforce and retained job security language in the union contract, although the company will now proceed to close the Cheshire plant and the CARO repair department in East Hartford, displacing 500 workers. An "early out" benefit package won by the union is expected to create job openings for most of the affected workers.
From the start the company, which produces, overhauls and repairs commercial and military jet engines for United Technologies Corp (UTC), made it known that they anticipated workers were too divided to stop the elimination of contract language requiring "every reasonable effort" to keep jobs in Connecticut. However, that language remains, a tribute to the unity that the workers were able to maintain around the slogan "Don't screw with letter 22."
The closings are bad news for the current and future workforce in Connecticut. UTC is the largest private employer in the state. There are 3,400 workers at Pratt & Whitney plants in Middletown, Cheshire and East Hartford. At the time of the last contract there were over 5,000 workers and the North Haven plant was still open.
During the week leading up to the contract vote, union members wore their special t-shirts, rallied outside the main plant, and carried out full preparations for a strike. At the last moment the company made an offer incorporating enough of the union concerns for the negotiating committee to recommend a "yes" vote. When the members gathered at Oakdale Theater in Wallingford, they listened to the terms of the agreement, and, in an hour, voted overwhelmingly to accept.
IAM chief negotiator Jim Parent emphasized that in the 16-month fight over the Cheshire and CARO closings, which included two court cases won by the union, "our members never gave up, gave in or stopped fighting. We have had a lot of support along the way from elected officials, the labor movement, many local businesses and others."
Parent pointed out that "the company had originally dismissed us as too old and tired to put up a fight. But our members raised hell in every shop, and convinced the top brass at UTC and Pratt that they were looking at a strike. That's when management really began to negotiate and address our concerns."
The contract includes a Special Separation Program that pays a week of severance pay for every year of service on the job, paid medical and dental for one year and a lump sum payment of $20,000. The company and the union will work jointly on job placement, training and reducing vended-out work. Under a new F-135 military production contract, the company will add 75 new jobs.
The contract also includes signing bonuses of $3,00 to $4,000, annual wage increases of 3 percent, 2.5 percent and 2.5 percent, pension increases and a renewed apprenticeship program.
The contracts won by workers at Pratt & Whitney are used as a standard by other employers in the state, who consider Pratt wages and benefits as top of the line.
"The same vigilant membership will ensure that Pratt lives up to its commitments now. And we will expect that the commitments made by company negotiators are sincere and will be honored. If not, our members are prepared to do whatever it takes to protect their rights, and their jobs," said Parent.
According to John Harrity, in charge of communications for IAM District 26, "The fight of Pratt & Whitney workers demonstrates too vividly the tremendous pressures under which organized workers operate against decreasing union density in the US and the globalization of manufacturing. We need trade policies that raise global standards instead of dragging workers down, and laws that encourage organizing rather than stripping workers of their right to a voice on the job. Without those changes, even militant workers like those at Pratt will be faced with fighting for the best out of terrible options."
Photo: At a plant gate rally before the contract expiration, union workers say "Don't screw with letter 22," referring to the contract provision which restricts outsourcing. PW