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NW Engine Service Workers Strike
vs New Corporate "Southern Strategy"

from Seattle Solidarity Network

THE NEW OWNER AT Cummins Northwest has told his workers there's going to be a new deal: no more union pension plan, no more union medical insurance, and no more union shop. In reply, from Seattle to Spokane to Portland to Pendleton, they've walked off the job and onto the picket line.

These are the workers who service and repair the big Cummins diesel engines that power truck lines and school buses throughout the Northwest, as well as the Cummins generators that give backup electricity to companies such as MCI and Microsoft. Most have never been on strike before.

"We had two years left on our contract when this guy bought the place, and he told the previous owner that he would honor it," a striking generator shop worker said, "then the first thing he did was to come in and nullify the contract."

The new owner, Rod Stohler, is the son of Dick Stohler, ex-owner of Florida-based Cummins Power Southeast. "Basically what happened was, Daddy gave him some money to go across to the other side of the country and buy [Cummins Northwest]," one shop foreman said. "In Florida they're a right-to-work state, so I think when he comes up here, that's what he thinks he can do."

The strikers, who have been out since July 7, are not demanding more money. "We're not asking for anything more than what we've already had," a truck engine technician in Seattle said. Instead, they're on strike against company actions that they and their two unions -- the Machinists and the Teamsters -- believe are unfair labor practices, violations of their rights as workers, and attempts to break the unions at Cummins. "They were 'direct bargaining' with us: trying to force people to go around our union" and agree individually to major contract changes, the technician said.

The biggest of these changes has been the one involving retirement. "The basic sticking point is, they want to take away our union pension," a Seattle picketer said. "They keep coming back and saying that it's 'a liability for the company'. So that's their reasoning for it -- they won't give us any reason other than that."

A shop steward in the parts department said some of his co-workers were three-fifths of the way towards earning the pensions they'd been promised, which the company now intends to cancel. He underlined the importance of the pension plan: "My uncle just retired from this company after 40 years of doing the same thing inside there. That's all he wanted to do. His wife was at Boeing, where she was working in a grid with printed ciruit boards and chemicals. She went down with an injury and had to retire early." Their retirement would be very hard without the Cummins pension, he said.

Health insurance, a burning issue in recent labor struggles all over the country, is another major point of conflict. "They want to take us out of our union medical," the generator shop worker said. "The company's plan sucks compared to ours. It really truly does. And it costs more."

On top of the health and pension issues, the new owner's demand to move from a union-shop to an open-shop contract has convinced many workers that he's out to break their unions. With an open-shop contract, management would be free to have an unlimited number of non-union employees working alongside union members, which could weaken the unions and possibly eliminate them. "They want to go to an open shop, so that over time the union would be overturned and we'd become a non-union shop," the parts steward said. "If that happens then of course you can kiss your pension goodbye."

They're not kissing anything goodbye just yet though. Workers say they believe their strike is having a major impact on Cummins Northwest, and the company may yet be forced to yield. "They've been attempting to operate, but it's mostly just management in there working," the truck engine technician said. "There's no way they're making any money right now." According to strikers at the Seattle (Renton) location, so far no Machinists have crossed their picket line, and no new vehicles have come in for service. They've also been encouraged by the support other workers have shown, including local Teamsters and Boeing workers who have been stopping by to visit their picket lines, hold strike signs, and deliver donuts. They said they once tried to share the donuts with the off-duty policeman the company has hired to monitor them, but he declined the offer. Meanwhile, the most obvious sign of support has been the almost constant honking of cars, and especially trucks, passing by on SW Grady Way.

Beyond the picket lines, the decisive factor in this conflict may be the actions of Cummins Northwest's customers, which include unionized trucking companies, public school districts, the state of Washington, Sound Transit, and the city of Seattle. If Cummins Northwest is unable to fulfil its service contracts with these customers, they may choose to take their engines and generators elsewhere. Union members hope that with enough public pressure, some of these customers will begin using their leverage to push management into settling the dispute at the bargaining table.

The Renton location of Cummins Northwest is at 811 SW Grady Way, near Wal-Mart.

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