For the first time since 1976, the International Association of Machinists union is on strike at the water valve and fittings manufacturer Mueller Co. in Chattanooga after workers voted overwhelmingly Sunday to reject the company's latest contract offer.
The 592-employee plant off Amnicola Highway is continuing operations, at least for now. Workers represented by the larger United Steelworkers union at the Mueller plant previously approved their own contract last year but may vote this week to honor the machinists' walkout.
The machinists union represents 102 hourly workers at the Chattanooga Mueller plant, or about 17% of the workers at the plant, and not all the machinists are members of the union or on strike.
The striking mechanics complained that Mueller is proposing work shift changes to limit overtime and extra pay, especially on weekends, by shifting to four 10-hour workdays during the week, or three 12-hour shifts on the weekend, they said in interviews on the picket line.
"They're trying to shift our work schedules and take away a lot of our overtime," said David Combs, a skilled maintenance worker who has been employed at the Mueller plant in Chattanooga for the past 45 years. "I think the pay package was pretty decent, but we just don't want them changing the hours of work."
Buck Bales, a veteran mechanic who has worked at Mueller for three years, said the new contract would boost wages 7.25%, while medical insurance premiums would rise 8%. The change in working hours and higher insurance costs led all but a handful of workers to reject the contract offer, Bales said.
Other striking workers said they don't like higher pay being given to new hires than what they are paid for years of skilled labor.
"We're highly skilled maintenance workers who have been doing this for years, and now they're bringing unskilled workers in, and in some instances, paying more than the skilled craftsmen," said John Pekala, a maintenance worker at the Mueller plant for the past 38 years. "None of us really want to be on strike. We all have families and we want to keep working, but you can't pay unskilled workers more than skilled craftsmen."
Robin Keegan, director of communications for the Atlanta-based Mueller Co., said the contract offered to the machinists' union was comparable to what was offered and accepted by the United Steelworkers union at the Chattanooga plant and other Mueller production sites last year.
"We had several bargaining sessions between the parties with numerous proposals and counter-proposals exchanged, and we feel like as a company we put forth a fair and reasonable wage and benefit proposals," Keegan said Monday in a phone interview. "We have been and will continue to bargain in good faith with the IAM in an effort to reach a collective bargaining agreement for everyone."
Keegan said the schedule and operational changes proposed in the contract "were designed to enhance safety and productivity."
"We have requested an extension (of the current contract) that would go through this Friday, but we have not yet heard a response back from the union," Keegan said.
The Chattanooga Mueller plant, which was originally built in 1965, makes water valves and valve components. Mueller's water division also operates production plants in Cleveland, Tennessee; Albertville, Alabama; Decatur, Illinois; Brownsville, Texas, and Ontario, Canada.