Bombardier Keeps Learjet Production Line Going Despite Strike

Surprised by a strike vote from its machinists, Bombardier Aerospace struggled to keep its Learjet production lines and service center open Monday as it won a court injunction to keep strikers from blocking access to the plant.

"The first task at hand is to understand why employees voted the way they did, and then we will determine our first steps," company spokesman Leo Knaapen said Monday.

Montreal-based Bombardier Aerospace employs about 4,000 in the United States, with 2,300 of them at its Learjet plant in Wichita. About 1,100 of them are represented by the striking machinists union.

"There is going to be an impact, but we need to measure what that impact is going to be," Knaapen said of the strike. "Clearly it is not business as usual, but we are open for business."

Knaapen said that despite the strike, the company continued Monday to build planes as well as service and maintain jets at the Wichita site.

The strike vote by members came as a surprise to both the union leadership and the company. On Saturday, union members rejected their own negotiating committee's recommendation to approve the company's contract offer.

The strike, which began at 12:01 a.m. (0401 GMT) Monday when the previous contract expired, was endorsed by 80 percent of the voting members Saturday, said officials for union Local 639 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. They declined to release totals.

"Clearly the employees do not think it is acceptable, and we need to understand why," Knaapen said.

Bombardier's final offer included a wage increase of 4 percent the first year and 3 percent in each of the final two years of the contract. It also retained the current health plan with increased premiums, contained pension increases, and retained its Christmas holiday shutdown and a pension plan for new workers.

Union officials said it had been four years since the last pay raise. Three years ago, workers accepted wage freezes and other concessions because Bombardier needed to cut costs and threatened to close one or two plants.

Those were very much on the mind of striking sheet-metal worker John Best late Monday morning as he walked the picket line: "They promised us if we took the concessions, they would give back to us to make it a fair deal," he said.

For the past month, Best said, he has been buying food to last through a strike: "It is going to be rough, yes. I am worried about it."

But he quickly added that it would be better to lose a little bit now than to give in and lose more in the long run.

"There is a lot of anger toward the company," union spokesman Bob Wood said Monday. "That is the way it is whenever a company does this kind of stuff - it blows up in their face."

By the time the current contract expired, strikers were picketing all the entrances to Bombardier's Wichita plant.

In August, Montreal-based Bombardier, the third-largest manufacturer of civil aircraft, reported its second-quarter profit fell to $58 million from $117 million last year on lower regional jet deliveries. Its revenue for the fiscal year ended Jan. 31, 2006, were $14.7 billion, according to the company Web site.


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