U.S. makes bid to end strike at Lockheed plant

Federal mediator orders union, company officials to D.C. for talks today

Walkout in Ga. began March 11

April 22, 2002|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Officials at Lockheed Martin Corp. will meet with union leaders in Washington today, at the behest of a federal mediator who says the labor strike at an aircraft assembly plant in Georgia is causing "a substantial interruption of commerce."

Lockheed Martin officials offered little hope, however, that they are willing to negotiate an end to the six-week-long standoff.

"The company's position and contract proposals have not changed," Lockheed Martin said in a statement released when the meeting was scheduled. "But we have agreed to the meeting to ensure that all avenues of possible settlement of the dispute are explored."

Members of the Machinists union went on strike March 11 at the Marietta, Ga., plant, which manufactures F-22 Raptor fighter planes and C-130 transport aircraft. The union represents about 2,700 of the plant's 7,000 employees.

The Machinists objected to a proposed contract that would allow Lockheed Martin to replace some union workers with outside contractors. Wages, which average $23 an hour for union members, were not in dispute.

The two sides have held talks since the strike began, but neither has budged from its initial position. C. Richard Barnes, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, ordered the company and the union back to the bargaining table today.

Work has continued at the Marietta plant, and spokesman Peter Simmons said Lockheed Martin is "currently meeting all contractual obligations."

Using managers and workers from other plants, Lockheed Martin completed its eighth F-22 last week and said it will soon complete a ninth - aircraft on which construction was well under way when the strike began. Union officials dismissed the announcement as a publicity stunt.

"We don't think they can build them right," said Bob Wood, a union spokesman. "The skills necessary to build an F-22 are real specialized, and the quality and safety just won't be there. I hope Georgia has a good lemon law, because that's what Lockheed Martin's going to deliver."

Wood said a handful of union workers have crossed the picket line but that most have honored the strike. The union pays $115 a week in strike pay, and has helped employees find temporary jobs.

Timothy S. Mescon, dean of the Michael J. Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University, said the union's strategy could be a risky one, considering persistent rumors the past few years that the Georgia plant might close altogether.

"Lockheed Martin invested about $35 million the past year in plant equipment and machinery, and if they hadn't done that I'm not convinced that they wouldn't have closed down by now," said Mescon. His campus is about 10 miles from the plant. Lockheed Martin operates another, larger aircraft plant in Fort Worth, Texas.

"At some point they're going to run an investment analysis, decide that the offer on the table is their best and last, and if the union doesn't take it just say, `Well, that's that then. We'll consolidate in Fort Worth.' "

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