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Union rejects Air Brake’s contract offer; will go on strike if talks don’t resume Tuesday

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The Machinists union rejected a three-year contract offer from New York Air Brake on Saturday, then voted to go on strike if the company doesn’t agree to restart negotiations by Tuesday. Management will meet this morning and intends to respond to the union today, the company president said after the vote.

Members of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 761 spent most of the day at the Northpole fire station discussing wage cuts and other concessions the company is demanding before voting against the contract about 5 p.m., said John B. Carr, regional spokesman for the union. He would not provide the vote count. The local has 150 members.

“The members overwhelmingly rejected the offer, and in the ensuing vote agreed to strike” if Air Brake will not resume negotiations, Mr. Carr said. “We want to return to the bargaining table to reach a fair agreement for our members and their families. We’re all standing by to see if Air Brake will agree to renegotiate, but our members have agreed to report to their shifts as scheduled” at least until Tuesday.

The union’s three-year contract expires at midnight Monday. If Air Brake rejects the offer to renegotiate, the union will strike, Mr. Carr said.

Reacting to the vote Saturday night, Air Brake President Michael J. Hawthorne said he still hopes to find common ground with the union. The company’s negotiations committee will determine its next position today, he said.

“Our goal is to find an arrangement that works for both the company and the union, and that’s always been the goal,” Mr. Hawthorne said.

Contract talks began six weeks ago and lasted through Friday.

Among the major sticking points, the company wants to cut union members’ pay by 59 cents an hour to as much as $4.15 an hour, depending on job classification, according to Peter B. Cooney, business representative for Local 761. The average union wage at Air Brake is $20.88, he said.

In exchange for the pay cuts, the company is proposing an incentive plan based on performance.

Mr. Cooney said Friday that union members also are dissatisfied with provisions in the contract offer that would scrap the union’s pension plan and replace it with a 401(k), discontinue seniority protections and give the company the ability to hire non-union workers. This so-called flexible worker provision would allow the company to hire part-time workers with no health benefits, Mr. Cooney said. Union members would see no major change in health insurance.

“It would allow them to bring in a number of up to 25 percent of what the bargaining unit workforce is,” he said. Those employees “could work any shift, or three days a week. They could hire a bunch of people that work less than anyone.”

As for pensions, Air Brake now contributes $2.45 an hour toward the pension plan under the current contract, agreed to in April 2010 following a daylong strike. The company’s proposal for a 401(k) instead would be a lesser benefit, Mr. Cooney said.

The incentive pay plan the company has put forth includes quality standards for individuals and teams of workers. The union contends that the program would not offset the wage cuts.

The cuts are intended to bring wages closer to current rates in the manufacturing industry, Mr. Cooney said.

“They’re trying to get more productivity even though the company’s doing very well,” he said. “They’re asking for pay cuts at a time when the company is doing great.”

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