Vought signs union deal

Vought Aircraft temporarily shut down most of its North Charleston plant (at top of photo) on Thursday in response to Boeing 787 program delays.

Vought Aircraft Industries Inc. has signed a three-year contract with its union employees in North Charleston, but a statement it issued Thursday elevated tensions between the company and the labor group that represents those workers.

The Dallas-based maker of fuselage sections for the Boeing 787 jet expressed surprise that the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers held an emergency meeting last Friday to ratify a labor agreement that contained "substantially" the same terms that the company offered when talks began a year ago.

The IAM countered that Vought did not negotiate fairly during their bargaining sessions. The union also said it was forced to recommend that its local members approve a less-than-ideal contract to protect jobs ahead of a wave of temporary layoffs at the plant.

The labor deal has stirred up emotions and suspicions on the factory floor at Vought, which Thursday ceased most manufacturing at the Charleston International Airport plant for at least two months because of strike-related delays at Boeing Co.

IAM spokesman Robert Wood said Thursday that the contract was ratified by about 92 percent of the eligible voting members who attended an emergency meeting Nov. 7.

Citing union policy, he declined to disclose how many Vought workers cast ballots. He also would not confirm claims from several employees that the number was as low as 13, with one voting against the contract.

Some IAM members felt left out of the process. On Wednesday, as the union was preparing to meet in North Charleston, The Post and Courier observed at least two Vought workers complaining openly to an official at the door that they were never told about the contract vote ahead of time.

Wood said advance notice went out, including an announcement on the shop floor.

In a written statement, Vought said Thursday that it was "surprised" to learn about the emergency vote, noting that "additional bargaining sessions" had been scheduled and that "final proposals" had not been exchanged between the company and the union.

Wood accused Vought of "not being truthful when it comes to the negotiating schedule."

"They had a 'run-out-the-clock' strategy," he said.

More than 120 workers at the Vought plant voted to join the IAM last year. That gave the union until last Friday to negotiate a contract. Otherwise, the members could have voted the next day to decertify the 2007 election.

Vought said the IAM recommended what was essentially its opening offer, which included a 401(k) retirement plan, performance-based pay and the ability for the company to manage the local plant.

"With certain limited exceptions, such as the institution of a seniority-based layoff system, the agreement includes terms and conditions substantially similar to those in effect at the time of the union's certification approximately one year ago," Vought said.

Wood said the two sides have negotiated, but he blasted the company's tactics, saying they were beyond stalling. He described Vought as "arrogant."

"They weren't bargaining in good faith," he said. "They were surface bargaining."

Vought said Thursday it did bargain in good faith.

Wood said the IAM had little choice but to recommend the agreement, even if it "isn't a perfect contract." Not only was the union facing the one-year decertification deadline, it also felt it had to lock down a deal before the 170 layoff notices that went out Thursday, he said.

"You're giving people their right to get their jobs back," Wood said. "With a union contract, now these folks have rights to come back to their jobs, to their old jobs and their old rate of pay. Without a contract you do not have this right."

Vought said it has since signed the agreement and believes it to be valid.

Relations between the company and the machinists union are already strained. About 900 IAM members have been on strike at the company's Nashville plant since their five-year contract expired in late September. Pensions, seniority, insurance and overtime benefits are among the key issues, according to reports.