2,000 Striking Auto Mechanics Say Their Whole Industry Needs Realignment

Will Greenberg August 24, 2017

International Association of Machinists president Bob Martinez stands with striking auto mechanics in front of Scabby the Rat, a caricature of strike-breakers.

The cost of car repairs might make your heart sink, but Chica­go-area mechan­ics say they don’t get a fair deal from deal­er­ships, either. On August 1, the near­ly 2,000 mem­bers of Auto Mechan­ics Union Local 701 vot­ed over­whelm­ing­ly to strike after reject­ing a con­tract at the end of July. If the strike doesn’t pro­duce the con­tract the union wants, many young mechan­ics could be fac­ing tough deci­sions about their future. 

Rafael Rosas, 23, has been work­ing at the Nis­san deal­er­ship in Evanston, Ill, for three years. He was pro­mot­ed from lube-tech­ni­cian to appren­tice last year and now makes a lit­tle under $20 an hour. Before he can become a jour­ney­man, or full-fledged mechan­ic, his employ­er must agree to pro­mote him — a process that can take up to 8 years. Rosas says he can’t wait that long; if the union fails at the nego­ti­a­tion table, he’s going to leave the indus­try for plumb­ing or anoth­er more lucra­tive trade in order to keep up with rent, bills and stu­dent loan payments.

I want­ed to become a mechan­ic, and we’ll see if every­thing works out,” says Rosas. If not, I’m gonna have to change careers.”

Bet­ter wages and faster pro­mo­tion for appren­tices are among the strik­ers’ top demands. Aspir­ing auto
mechan­ics might spend two or three years as a lube-tech­ni­cian before even being offered an appren­tice­ship, says Elion Seitl­lari, an Auto­mo­tive Instruc­tor at Tru­man Col­lege in Chica­go. Those posi­tions gen­er­al­ly pay under $20 an hour, and aspir­ing mechan­ics may also spend thou­sands of dol­lars to buy their own tools, which is effec­tive­ly a require­ment in the industry.

The union wants to cut to five years the time that employ­ers can keep appren­tices before pro­mot­ing them. As the strike entered its fourth week, the union sent a new con­tract pro­pos­al Tues­day evening to the New Car Deal­ers Com­mit­tee, which is rep­re­sent­ing 140 or so local deal­er­ships in the nego­ti­a­tions. Both sides are expect­ed to return to the nego­ti­a­tion table in the com­ing days. The union vot­ed to reject a pro­posed con­tract ear­li­er in the month, say­ing it met very few of their demands.

It’s not even about what’s right at this point,” says Chris­t­ian Walk­er, head tech­ni­cian at North­side Toy­ota in Chica­go. Seems like a bat­tle of ego: How dare us peas­ants chal­lenge you.’”

Local 701 is the largest mechan­ics union in the coun­try. It’s part of the Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Machin­ists (IAM) and Aero­space Work­ers, which orig­i­nal­ly formed in 1888 and began orga­niz­ing auto mechan­ics in the 1920s.

On Wednes­day, IAM Inter­na­tion­al Pres­i­dent Bob Mar­tinez vis­it­ed strik­ers out­side the Cadil­lac of Naperville in Chicago’s west­ern sub­urbs. Accord­ing to a report by CBS Chica­go, the sub­ur­ban deal­er­ship recent­ly instruct­ed strik­ing tech­ni­cians to remove their tool­box­es from the premis­es and threat­ened to hire replacements.

We’re sick and tired of their bull­shit and we deserve what we’re owed,” Mar­tinez told a crowd of about 50, who had assem­bled next to an icon­ic inflat­able rat bal­loon used by unions to shame unfair employ­ers. Mar­tinez told In These Times that said the mechan­ics’ strike high­lights the impor­tance of sol­i­dar­i­ty, say­ing that it would ben­e­fit both union and non-union work­ers” by improv­ing con­di­tions indus­try-wide. About 45 per­cent of Chica­go auto mechan­ics are union­ized, accord­ing to IAM.

Nation­al­ly, the indus­try is fac­ing an auto mechan­ic short­age. One esti­mate pre­dicts there will be more than 25,000 unfilled posi­tions in the next five years, accord­ing the New York Times. Experts wor­ry there aren’t even enough train­ing facil­i­ties to meet the demand in time. Cars are more sophis­ti­cat­ed than ever, mean­ing mechan­ics need train­ing in tra­di­tion­al auto repairs, as well as com­put­er and elec­tri­cal repair. Voca­tion­al work isn’t pop­u­lar to begin with, and work­ing as a plumber or elec­tri­cian is often more prof­itable than try­ing to break into auto­mo­tive service.

Local 701 believes their rec­om­mend­ed changes will entice new tal­ent. But Dave Radelet, lead nego­tia­tor for the NCDC, insists that the union’s demands aren’t fea­si­ble. He acknowl­edges that a typ­i­cal deal­er­ship charges cus­tomers $100 or more for an hour of ser­vice, while union tech­ni­cians usu­al­ly make around $30 an hour. But the dif­fer­ence goes toward expens­es and employ­ee ben­e­fits, he says. As for the young work­ers stuck wait­ing for a pro­mo­tion, Radelet said they should leave for anoth­er deal­er­ship and nego­ti­ate a high­er job title with bet­ter pay.

Anoth­er key demand from the union is a 40-hour a week guar­an­tee for jour­ney­men, up from the 34 their
con­tract cur­rent­ly ensures. The NCDC reports that 70 per­cent of tech­ni­cians book 40 hours or more through work­ing addi­tion­al repair jobs, but the union feels this arrange­ment leaves work­ers vul­ner­a­ble to slow weeks where there isn’t enough work com­ing in. Addi­tion­al­ly, low repair times for war­ran­ty fix­es can lead to unpaid work: per indus­try stan­dards for new-car deal­er­ships, mechan­ics are only paid for the time man­u­fac­tur­ers state a giv­en job should take, and both the union and NCDC agree these times have dropped in recent years. If a mechan­ic needs four hours to fin­ish a job that’s list­ed to only take two, they are only paid for half that work time (Radelet says this is a very rare sit­u­a­tion,” but sev­er­al mechan­ics told In These Times that jobs often take longer than the list­ed repair time).

Marc Osberg, a mechan­ic at the Evanston Nis­san shop, says that his annu­al pay has fall­en from $80,000 in 2007 to less than $60,000 today, thanks to a drop in his paid hours. He filed for bank­rupt­cy ear­li­er this year, after his wife’s ill­ness and even­tu­al death pushed him into debt.

It’s almost like los­ing a part-time job the way we’ve been get­ting paid,” he says.

There’s no word yet on exact­ly when both sides will return to the nego­ti­at­ing table or have a new con­tract to vote on. But this strike, says Chris­t­ian Walk­er, shows exact­ly what hap­pens when you don’t have enough mechan­ics in the shop.

The guys who are treat­ed the worst and ignored the most overnight shut down 140 mul­ti-mil­lion- dollar
busi­ness­es,” he says. You can take any­one else from this equa­tion and this will still oper­ate. You take us out? Done.”

Will Green­berg is a jour­nal­ist from Chica­go whose work has appeared in places like The Wash­ing­ton Post, Moth­er Jones, and the Chica­go Read­er. You can fol­low him on Twit­ter @wrgree.
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