Unionized maintenance mechanics who went on strike at the Mueller water valve production plant in Chattanooga a week ago voted Sunday to go back to work Monday under an extension of the workers' previous contract.
Negotiators for Mueller and Local 56 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union agreed to extend the previous labor pact for five days while talks resume on a new contract for the union, which represents 102 of the 592 workers at the Mueller plant just off Amnicola Highway.
The vote to return to work while negotiations resume came just a week after union members voted down a similar offer on Jan. 15 and decided to go on strike at Mueller for the first time since 1976.
Keith McFarland, the business representative for the Machinists and Aerospace Workers union, said Sunday's vote, which was closer than a week earlier, will put the maintenance mechanics back on the job, at least for this week, and give time for both sides to work out a new labor agreement. The Mueller plant continued production last week during the strike, but McFarland said the mechanics are key to keeping the machinery running long term at the 57-year-old plant.
"We've been talking with the company and have exchanged several proposals last week, and I will be having a Zoom meeting Monday and a face-to-face meeting on Tuesday, so negotiations are ongoing," McFarland said in a telephone interview Sunday. "We hope we can get a contract agreement for our members to vote on by the end of the week."
Robin Keegan, director of communications for the Atlanta-based Mueller Co., said the company "is very pleased with this development" and is eager to reach a new agreement with the union.
"We look forward to welcoming the IAMAW members back to work Monday morning, and we will continue negotiations," she said in a telephone interview Sunday evening.
After the first membership vote to go on strike a week ago, McFarland said, "The company realized that our members were serious" about some of their concerns over scheduling changes proposed by Mueller.
During picketing last week outside the Mueller Avenue plant, the striking maintenance mechanics said they objected to the company's proposed schedule changes they say would 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.
Keegan 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 last August under the steelworkers' current three-year contract. Members of the steelworkers union, who comprise the biggest share of the workers at the Mueller facility in Chattanooga, crossed the Machinists and Aerospace Workers picket lines last week and stayed on the job during the machinists' strike.
The Chattanooga Mueller plant, originally built in 1965, makes water valves and valve components. Mueller's water division also operates other unionized plants Decatur, Illinois, and Albertville, Alabama, as well as other nonunion production plants in Cleveland and Kimball, Tennessee; Brownsville, Texas; and Ontario, Canada.