Workers hopeful on contract vote

Workers hopeful on contract vote
 
Date July 02, 2004
Section(s) Local News
   
 
By ANDY KARR

NDN Staff Writer

Maytag strikers stood in the hot afternoon sun Thursday with the knowledge that they might not be on strike much longer. If the tentative contract reached Thursday morning by UAW 997 and Maytag is ratified by union members today, workers can head back to the job.

Strikers said they hadn’t heard details of the agreement but were eager to learn more about the deal before they vote today. Most union members seemed confident the contract would be ratified and they could go back to work.

More than 1,500 Maytag production workers walked off the job on June 10 after negotiations with the company broke off. More than 400 workers on layoff joined the picket lines after exercising their recall rights and then joining the strike.

The groups got back together with federal mediators in Chicago two weeks ago and resumed talks there this week before the announcement of the tentative contract on Thursday. Talks broke off over health benefits and pension plan issues.

Dennis Wells of Newton said he was pleased that a tentative deal had been reached.

“I’m ready to go back to work. Let’s get it settled and get back to work,” he said, adding, “Hope its a good contract.”

Wells stood outside Maytag‘s corporate headquarters Thursday with Dave Wells and Harold Wells Jr. The three men are unrelated, merely assigned to the same picket station by an alphabetical system of picket duty.

News of the tentative contract had them in good spirits, smiling and waving at honking passers-by despite warm temperatures.

“I’m glad. I’m relieved.” Dave Wells said. “Its been a long time coming. We really didn’t expect Maytag to settle with us.”

Dennis Wells has been with the company 26 years, Harold for 28. Both men said they’re eager to see retirement benefits in the new contract.

Union members have previously said that loss of retirement benefits was one of the sticking points during negotiations. As Harold and Dennis near retirement age, that issue becomes increasingly important to the two men.

“I hope the union did right by us,” Harold said. “The union’s never done us wrong yet.”

All three men said the show of support from the community has been tremendous during the strike. As they were talking, a Pizza Hut delivery car pulled up and dropped off a free pizza. The strikers said some area vendors have shown support by donating food.

At a nearby picket station, Jeff Wells of Knoxville stood holding a UAW sign while his son rode a scooter on the sidewalk nearby. He, too, mentioned the strong community support and said he was glad a tentative agreement was reached.

“We’d much rather be at work than be out here,” he said. “It’s a beautiful day, but it doesn’t pay the bills.”

Other Maytag strikers summed up their reactions with single words.

Larry Wessels said he was “excited” at the prospect of a new contract and the chance to return to work.

Gary Wilkening used the term “hopeful” to describe his mood, while fellow striker Steve Wilcox said he felt “skeptical” as to whether the contract would be acceptable.

As news of the tentative contract spread, city officials chimed in with their reaction.

“Right now, I’m excited at the news a tentative agreement has been reached,” Mayor Chaz Allen said. “It will be nice to have the town back to normal and everyone back to work.”

“My reaction is joy,” Newton City Council member Jane Ann Cotton said. “I’m very pleased because I feel it was important to get the contract settled and have the workers go back to work and have a contract that everyone is happy with.

“I think this is very important for the future of our community. We all know how important Maytag Corporation and the plant is to our community.”

Others on the city council agreed.

“I think that’s great news, especially for Maytag workers, but also for everyone in town,” said council member Dennis Julius. “It’s going to relieve a lot of stress and anxiety. If the people who were negotiating feel that it’s a good contract, then hopefully the union will feel the same.”

“If it’s acceptable for the membership, and should they ratify it today, what a collective smile will spread across the community,” said council member Mike Hansen, who also serves as president of the union representing school maintenance personnel. “Once again, the collective bargaining system works for both parties. How appropriate on this Fourth of July weekend when we celebrate Independence Day. It’s just fantastic for everyone concerned.”

Officials from the governor’s office also voiced satisfaction over the tentative agreement.

“The governor is very pleased with the news,” said Matt Paul, a spokesperson for the governor. “It’s good news for the families of Maytag, the union and the company. The governor is pleased that both the union and the company agreed to get back to the table. He’s very appreciative of that.”

Ted Johnson, UAW Local 997 vicepresident, said he had not been apprised of the details of the negotiated contract as of Thursday noon, but said the bargaining committee would be informed before the ratification vote at noon today.

Johnson said the UAW membership would be given the details of the company’s offer during the meeting at the high school, then a vote would be held. With more than 1,500 votes expected to be cast, he estimated results would not be known until about 3 p.m. this afternoon.

Johnson would not comment on the contract’s chances of ratification, but said he hoped that an agreement could be reached, through the proper negotiating channels.

“I live by the concept that you’ve got to live to fight another day,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, a fair and equitable agreement will give us the opportunity to do that.”

Johnson said the union membership has been holding up well during the strike and said the support shown for the union has been very gratifying.

“Morale’s been excellent,” Johnson said of those out on the picket line. “And the support that the community has shown us has just been fantastic.”

He likened the relationship among union membership, the Maytag Corporation and the city of Newton as a “woven basket,” an interconnected whole that must work together for the good of all.

Local retailers were anticipating a positive result from today’s vote.

Kerry Walker, manager of Randa’s Appliance & Electronics, said he is “absolutely” anticipating the results of today’s vote on the new contract.

“We’re glad that this step has been taken,” Walker said. “We’re excited and hope it all works out. Things are looking brighter than they were a week ago.”

Elaine Mattingly, owner of Mattingly’s Music & Book Store, agreed.

“It seems like good news,” she said.

Daily News reporters John Jennings, Erin Haller-Morain, Mandi Lamb and Peter Hussmann contributed to this report.

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