Employees of United Launch Alliance, one of the area’s largest employers, could go on strike Monday, depending on the results of a union vote Sunday.
The negotiations committee for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers last week recommended that its members reject management’s three-year contract proposal and authorize a strike. The recommendation came after ULA management gave its “last, best and final offer.” The existing three-year contract expires Sunday.
The contract covers 300 hourly employees located in Decatur’s 607-employee plant and another 300 at ULA’s launch sites in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
“If a strike were to occur, our operations would continue, and we would implement our contingency plan while focusing on meeting our commitments to our customers,” ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said. “We have a plan in place to help mitigate the strike’s impact, and that plan would be implemented at that time.”
The next ULA launch is scheduled early Saturday morning. The first scheduled launch after the union vote is in late July.
Formal negotiations began April 16. In a recap of discussions held that day, ULA management said it explained to union leadership “the challenges it faces in an ultra-competitive environment, stressing the need to focus on flexibility and agility. While ULA has strong confidence in its workforce, ULA expressed its view that it is at a strong disadvantage in competing with non-union entities which do not have to respect the parameters of a union contract.”
SpaceX, a major ULA competitor, is not unionized.
Matt Griggs, a business representative with Machinists who was in Decatur on Thursday, said the union’s main issues with the ULA contract are not financial. A major problem for Decatur employees, he said, involves travel.
“They put in their contract that the employees in Decatur can be told on a whim that they have to pick up and leave their families for up to 30 days,” Griggs said. “It puts a strain on the families. This is not a financial issue, it’s more about the treatment of the working men and women and their families.”
A related issue, according to a memo from the union to employees, involves travel pay for Decatur workers who are on a lower pay scale than their colleagues in regions with a higher cost of living.
“They … want to force workers in Decatur to perform launch site work at the launch sites at Decatur’s lower pay rates,” the union said.
The current contract, Griggs said, does not require Decatur hourly workers to travel.
Griggs said the ULA proposal also would provide management with more authority to use subcontractors and salaried employees for jobs now performed by hourly employees. In a summary of its offer, ULA said no employees would be displaced due to subcontracting and that it would only subcontract work that has been subcontracted in the past.
“They’re wanting to give our work away,” Griggs said. “They’re wanting to give it to people who are non-union. We don’t stand for that. That’s a major issue.”
Pensions were frozen after the 2015 contract, but under ULA's proposed contract, the pension plans would be transferred to a third party.
“Presently, your pension is guaranteed and insured by the (Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.),” the union said in a memo to employees. “We all know what has happened to pensions that have been sold off in the past. Once it is sold, there are no guarantees any longer and you have the possibility to lose it.”
A major disagreement in the ratified 2012 contract was that new hires were no longer included in the pension system, but in a 401(k) plan. At the time, union leadership argued this would split union members and reduce their future bargaining power, as new hires would have little incentive to protect longtime employees’ pensions.
ULA's offer includes a $6,000 signing bonus for each employee, a promise the union in its memo to workers described as a "bribe." According to ULA, the contract also provides employees with 38 paid holidays over three years.
“ULA believes its offer is fair, competitive and in the best interest of both ULA and its employees,” Rye said.
The Machinists union also recommended against the ULA contracts in 2012 and 2015. A majority of the union members voted against accepting the 2012 contract, but they were just short of the two-thirds vote needed to authorize a strike. In May 2015, 53 percent of the union members approved the ULA contract despite the negotiation committee’s recommendation.
“The contract just doesn’t reflect with respect and dignity what the working men and women do there every day,” Griggs said. “They’ve made ULA grow into what it is today, the safest aerospace company in the world. These workers have set the bar for everyone else in aerospace.”