About 370 manufacturing workers at Spokane’s Triumph Composite Systems plant walked out in a labor dispute Friday, saying they’ll continue the strike indefinitely until they get a better contract offer.
The workers took to picket lines at the plant’s West Plains site at 6 a.m. Friday, after voting overwhelmingly to reject the company’s last contract offer. The two sides have been negotiating a new contract for several months.
Triumph, based in Wayne, Pa., purchased the plant from Boeing in 2003. The plant produces ducts and floor panels for Boeing Aerospace and Airbus aircraft. When Triumph bought the plant, union production workers and managers agreed to a 15 percent pay cut in order for the sale to occur. The contract signed in 2003 that allowed the sale to Triumph expired at midnight Thursday.
“I really can’t say we know how long this will continue,” said Connie Kelliher, a Seattle-based spokeswoman for the International Association of Machinists aerospace group. “I wish we had an answer to that question.”
The Machinists say the new offer from Triumph creates an 11-year step system from entry-level to top-scale salary, and that long period penalizes new hires. The start-to-top scale schedule that Boeing had at the same plant stretched six years, said Kelliher.
“Eleven years is longer than it takes someone to become a doctor or lawyer,” she said. “People hired by Triumph become very good at their jobs within three or four years.”
Some parts of the contract offer are considered adequate, several union members said Friday.
“It’s an acceptable contract if you’re a senior worker. We get treated all right,” said Rich Henke, a Triumph production mechanic, speaking outside the company gate on Friday.
“This strike is really about the new hires. They’re not getting a fair deal,” said Henke, who went to work at the West Plains Boeing plant in 1995.
A Triumph press release noted that the offer represents a 17 percent hike in wages and benefits over the next three years. Wages for machinists there now range from about $10.73 per hour for entry jobs, up to around $23 per hour. The proposed contract would increase hourly wages by roughly 55 cents every six months, according to Steve Warren, the president of the Triumph lodge of the IAM.
But union workers said the three-year contract only offers a 10 percent pay hike in that period. And while the remaining 7 percent of the proposed gains is in benefits, that doesn’t directly help many workers, Kelliher said. “We do get good medical and pension benefits. But they don’t help when you have to pay the rent or make house payments,” she said.
Kelliher said the union is not disclosing how long the step-scale for wages should be in its request to the company. “We don’t want to negotiate the contract in public,” she said.
A Triumph spokesman said the company hopes to resume contract talks before long. Bill Boyd, director of program management for Triumph Spokane, said the company will not publicly discuss its operation plans should the strike continue.
A company news release sent out Friday said a strike contingency plan would be put in place. “The company plans to re-engage with the IAM after ensuring the appropriate measures are in place to continue production should the strike be protracted,” the release said. The company would not elaborate on what the “appropriate measures” might be or whether they would include replacement workers.
The statement also said, “Triumph is disappointed that its workforce, already one of the highest paid for manufacturing jobs in Spokane, voted to reject this company offer.”
Quality assurance inspector Bob Porter, who’s worked at the plant since 1990, said he found the company position misleading. “It’s not really about the money,” he said. “It’s their effort to try and drive a wedge between older and younger workers, by keeping the new hires at lower wages longer,” he said.
Added Porter: “This plant is one of their most profitable in the entire (Triumph group). We asked them yesterday in a company meeting and they agreed, the Spokane plant is profitable for them.”
For fiscal 2007, the company reported net sales of $954.7 million and a profit of $47.1 million. Its reports also said Triumph’s aerospace division generated sales of $750.9 million, an increase of 25 percent over the year before.
Another point of dispute in the talks involves former Boeing workers who lost their jobs when Triumph came in. About 35 such former workers were rehired by Triumph but placed in entry-level spots, said Warren. The union asks they be given wage scales comparable to their experience.
The union plans to continue picketing seven days a week “sunup to sundown,” Warren explained. “We’ll be here and are ready to talk with them at any time,” Warren said.
The IAM has set aside a strike fund that would pay machinists about $150 a week if the strike reaches a third week.
The Triumph plant has a total of 430 workers. About 60 engineers, support staff and managers continue to work at the facility, said a company news release. The plant normally has two shifts plus a limited overnight skeleton crew, Warren said.
Reporters Jody Lawrence-Turner and Melodie Little contributed to this report.
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