Machinists strike Tuftco but production continues

Union disputes contract over seniority as carpet industry sees rebound

Billy Heard, of the Local 56 of the International Association of Machinist union, waves at a car Friday, October 9, 2015 near the Tuftco building on Holtzclaw Avenue.

For the first time in more than two decades, union employees at Tuftco Inc. in Chattanooga are striking the carpet equipment maker.

About two dozen of the 55 hourly employees at Tuftco's main factory on Holtzclaw Avenue walked off their jobs this week after their previous three-year labor agreement expired and the company and union were unable to negotiate a new contract.

"We made a lot of contract concessions during the downturn, and we have some real concerns about the company refusing to recognize the seniority of the workers here," said John Sisson, a 64-year-old water jet operator at Tuftco who is a committee member for Local 56 of the International Association of Machinists union. "If we lose that right, then we will have people moved up just on preference rather than ability."

Tuftco is continuing production at its Chattanooga plant, and company executives said they could shift more production to the company's other nonunion plants in Dalton, Ga., and Palmer, Tenn., to meet customer demands, if needed.

Tuftco, a 55-year-old maker of tufting and carpet-making equipment, is the only unionized tufting plant in Chattanooga. In a prepared statement, Tuftco CEO Steve Frost, whose father Jack bought the company is 1985, said the company "offered a wage and benefit package that far exceeds the average manufacturing compensation plan in the Chattanooga region."

The average manufacturing worker in Tennessee was paid $17.36 per hour in August, 2015, the most recent month for which such data is available from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Tennessee factory wages, on average, were $2.49 per hour, or 12.5 percent, less than the average manufacturing wage for all U.S. manufacturing workers.

photo Basye "Base" Hibbett, left, and Steve Little, of the Local 56 of the International Association of Machinist union, wear signs Friday, October 9, 2015 near the Tuftco building on Holtzclaw Avenue.

Tuftco machinists are paid about $19 an hour, Sisson said, but he said the company dropped its pension plan six years ago and doesn't offer a company match with its 401(k) retirement plan. Workers said they have been forced to work overtime this year all but about six weeks due to increased demand for Tuftco products.

Keith McFarland, the district manager for the machinists in Nashville, said Tuftco workers have had to work from 44 to 60 hours of mandatory overtime a month. The union is seeking to make any overtime work beyond 24 hours a month voluntary, rather than required for employment.

Although the recession forced the company to cut back production heavily during and after the 2009-2010 recession, about 40 percent of Tuftco's hourly staff has been hired in the past three years.

But even as demand for workers has rebounded and work hours have grown, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that major strikes in the U.S. last year still dropped to the lowest number of employees since the worst of the recession in 2009 and involved only 10 percent as many as in the year 2000.

Employees picketing outside the plant Friday held signs complaining about lost vacation time, mandatory overtime practices and cutbacks in seniority pay and benefits.

Frost declined to discuss any details of the contract dispute. But the company CEO estimated less than 8 percent of the company's 250 employees are on strike.

"All of our nonunion employees, as well as some union employees, have crossed the picket lines in Chattanooga and currently there are many more individuals working in the plant than those involved in the work stoppage," Frost said.

No new talks are scheduled and Frost warned strikers that "we will shift some production to our other plants, in addition to continuing to operate our Chattanooga facility, in order to assure our customers and suppliers that we are conducting "business as usual,'" he said. "We do not foresee this work stoppage having any negative impact on the company for the long term."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.