Pratt & Whitney machinists go on strike after rejecting contract proposal

Monday, December 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Pratt & Whitney machinists hit the picket lines early Monday, hours after rejecting a contract proposal by the jet-engine maker that included a 10 percent raise over three years and a $1,000 bonus for each worker.

About 20 workers wore sandwich board sings and hovered around entrances to Pratt's headquarters and plant in East Hartford shortly after midnight, when the latest contract expired. A large metal barrel with burning wood provided relief from the cold at a picket site on Main Street.

``It's a little chilly, but we'll be out here as long as it takes,'' said Rich Carlson, a 40-year-old machinist from Meriden. ``I was in the strike of 1985. I was out there from the beginning to show my support and I'm out here to do the same.''

The strike comes at an especially difficult time for Pratt & Whitney as it tries to cope with a recession and a downturn in the airline industry following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A walkout could also harm the company's ability to supply the U.S. Air Force as military operations continue in Afghanistan, Pratt spokesman Mark Sullivan said.

He said Pratt planned to open for business Monday morning with nearly 2,000 managers and salaried employees reassigned to union workers' jobs. ``We will meet the requirements of our customers,'' Sullivan said.

Union leaders said workers will be on the picket lines around the clock at plants in East Hartford, Middletown, North Haven and Cheshire until they have a contract that is acceptable to them. No new talks have been scheduled.

Nearly 70 percent of the 4,000 union members who voted on the contract Sunday afternoon approved the strike, surpassing the needed two-thirds majority. It's the first strike at Pratt since 1985.

The proposed contract, which would have covered the union's 5,100 workers, included increased medical and pension benefits and 10 percent raises that would have boosted the current average wage of $23.27 an hour to $25.88 by the end of the contract. A $1,000 bonus would go to each worker if the pact was ratified.

But members of District 91 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers said the proposal had loopholes in provisions on job security, one of their biggest concerns.

Pratt employs about 13,000 people in Connecticut, 7,000 fewer than in the early 1990s.

``What they've done with our jobs is disgusting,'' said machinist Scott Smith, 51, who works at the company's Cheshire plant.

Sullivan said Pratt officials made the best offer they could on Saturday, the last day of the talks.

``Obviously we're extremely disappointed,'' Sullivan said. ``We made what we believe was an extremely generous offer, in light of the tough economic times today. Certainly a long strike would be damaging to our company and our employees.''

Parent company United Technologies said last month it will cut about 8 percent of the jobs in its Pratt & Whitney jet engine division and 9 percent of positions at aerospace supplier Hamilton Sundstrand.

Striking workers would be paid $115 a week by the union, but only after two weeks on the picket lines.

``This is more than about losing income,'' said Mel Tripp, a 51-year-old machinist from Southington who works at the Middletown plant. ``It's about your future.''