Johnson & Towers workers strike at Essex, Beltsville auto centers

Teamsters mechanics' contract expired Friday

April 22, 2003|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

About 100 members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters struck Johnson & Towers Inc. yesterday after contract negotiations collapsed, closing down operations at its automotive services and distribution centers in Essex and Beltsville.

The walkout came after a three-year contract between Teamsters Local 311 and the company expired at midnight Friday. Attempts to continue talks over the weekend failed.

Johnson & Towers management said a strike would cost the company thousands of dollars a day, but union officials said workers were determined to hold out until their demands on wages and vacation time were met.

Johnson & Towers, a distribution and service center for heavy-duty diesel engines and automatic transmissions, works mostly with mass transit systems and waste management services in Maryland and Washington. It also serves as the distributor and warranty service outlet for General Motors Corp.'s Allison Transmission plant in White Marsh and a division of DaimlerChrysler power systems.

The union wants a 5 percent raise and five weeks of vacation for 20 years of service. The company is offering a 3 percent increase but would keep vacation at four weeks after 12 years' service.

Under the expired contract, mechanics typically made about $50,000 a year and got four weeks of vacation.

"The average guy in my shop makes in excess of $20 per hour," said Paul Findeisen, senior vice president of Mount Laurel, N.J.-based Johnson & Towers, which has its main distribution center in Essex on Wilson Point Road.

"We gave them our best and final offer last Thursday and tried to give them an additional offer, but they won't negotiate," Findeisen said. "I was going to counter with a 4 percent increase, but they didn't want to discuss that. I don't understand why they're not being more cooperative. I was extremely surprised by their reaction."

Kenneth Kelm, secretary-treasurer of Local 311, said the union, which represents mechanics and clerical staff, rejected the offer because the 4 percent wage increase would have included a demand that employees pay $5 a week for individual health coverage. About 53 percent of Johnson & Towers work force have individual coverage and do not pay anything, he added.

The company also wanted to toughen disciplinary rules on attendance and change work hours.

"The membership is pretty adamant about staying out until they get what they want," Kelm said. "I know the economy isn't so hot right now, but the workers are in a pretty unique situation. It's almost impossible to find people to do this job.

"We were on strike in '90 and '93 and it was impossible for them to replace these workers. It's hard work. ... There's no animosity here. It's a good company. We're just doing what we have to do, and they're doing what they have to do."

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