I learned a few things Friday about the labor dispute between mechanics and the automobile dealerships that employ them.
When I stopped to talk with striking workers on picket lines in front of dealerships along 159th Street, I listened to people talk about their desire for fairness and willingness to compromise.
“We all have families. We all have bills. We’d like to get back to work,” said Rich Bryson, of Plainfield, who works at Joe Rizza Ford, 8100 W. 159th St., Orland Park.
That type of rhetoric is expected and typical in all labor disputes.
What I didn’t expect to hear was praise that striking workers volunteered about some employers.
“It’s not the owners, it’s the dealer’s association,” Bryson said. “The owners are great. They’re allowing us to use the bathroom. They bring us food.”
Down the street at Apple Chevrolet, 8585 W. 159th St., Tinley Park, striking workers said the same thing.
“We work for a great family,” said Demetrios Sitelis, of Orland Park, who has serviced vehicles at the dealership for 14 years. “Our ownership is great.”
Back at Joe Rizza Ford, management was getting ready to fire up a grill and cook lunch for striking workers.
“We’re doing the three B’s today: burgers, bratwurst and Ball Park Franks,” said Dan McMillan, Rizza’s chief financial officer.
In all my years covering labor disputes, I’ve never before seen such a cordial relationship among people on opposite sides of a conflict.
“We’re all still on the same team,” McMillan told me. “When all is said and done, we’ll all be back in the same building. We all have the same goal of providing great customer service.”
What then, I wondered, has kept about 2,000 members of Automobile Mechanics Local 701 on strike since Aug. 1? With the dispute set to begin its fourth week and no new talks scheduled as of Friday afternoon, I sought to learn more about both sides of the controversy.
I knew from media coverage that union workers had rejected the latest contract offer because, they said, it failed to address such key issues as uncompensated work time.
Union mechanics at about 130 Chicago-area dealerships work on commission, I was told. When a vehicle needs work, a mechanic is allotted a certain amount of time to diagnose and repair the vehicle based on industry standards. If it takes longer than expected, mechanics are essentially working on their own time, they said.
“You’re only guaranteed pay for 34 hours a week,” Bryson said. “No one works 34 hours. No one works 40 hours. Most mechanics work 10-hour days” — or 50 hours a week — but many are only paid for fewer than 40 hours, he said.
A key sticking point in negotiations is the amount of time allotted to service factory warranties, especially in the case of recalls. When vehicle manufacturers face expensive recalls, striking workers said, they try to shift the costs of repairs to dealers, who then shift the costs to workers.
“We’re taking the brunt of their engineering mistakes,” Sitelis said.
Automobile dealerships are collectively negotiating through a group called the 2017 New Car Dealer Committee, which on Thursday issued a media statement about the impasse.
“To resolve this labor dispute, we offered an industry-leading contract that includes unprecedented wage increases,” NCDC said. “Unfortunately, union leadership instructed our employees to reject this offer, and the strike continues. This strike is harming technician’s families, their co-workers and our loyal customers.”
Both sides have reached agreement on many issues, the dealer’s group said.
“We believe that the union’s proposals on the remaining issues would harm the ability of NCDC dealers to effectively compete in today’s marketplace, thus threatening the job security of our technicians as well as all of our other employees.”
Local 701 also issued a statement Thursday, thanking the public and other unions for showing support and accusing the dealer’s group of trying to “win” the strike instead of continuing negotiations with help from a federal mediator.
“The NCDC is using every expected play from the management strike play book — namely attempting to scare their employees into submission,” Local 701 said. “Some are forcing their employees to remove their toolboxes from the shop — sending the message that they are not welcome back.”
Clearly, the friendliness among management and workers outside dealerships in Orland Park and Tinley Park is not the case everywhere.
Striking workers told me many mechanics spend up to $30,000 to furnish their own tools. Technicians often are not compensated for time spent diagnosing mechanical issues, they said. They encounter delays with WiFi issues and when they talk by phone with information technology experts at manufacturers who try to help determine what repairs are needed.
“Vehicle technology has become very sophisticated,” Sitelis said. “We become IT guys. We hook laptops up to every car. When you’re on the phone with tech, you’re not getting paid.”
Before the strike, union journeymen received a base rate of $32.30 an hour, said Sam Cicinelli, Local 701 business representative. Entry-level apprentices started at $9.25 or $11.80 an hour, he said.
On Aug. 10, the NCDC said its “final offer” included raises of nearly 5 percent a year for each of the three years of the contract. The offer included paying “virtually all increases” in health benefits for employees, which would reach $292 a week by the end of the contract, NCDC said, plus 100 percent of pension costs, or $181 per week.
The offer received an “overwhelming rejection” from Local 701 members who voted in Countryside on Aug. 12, the union said.
Striking workers I talked to said the dealer group’s portrayal of the offer was “misleading” and failed to address key considerations such as uncompensated work time and the number of years experience needed to achieve journeyman status.
Workers said many of them had stockpiled savings in preparation for the strike and were prepared for an impasse that could stretch from weeks to months.
“This isn’t about right now, it’s about the future,” Sitelis said.
McMillan said he hoped the dispute would be resolved soon.
“This is hurting our business,” he said.