Teamsters Union Narrowly Approves Sikorsky Contract

Teamsters union members narrowly voted Sunday to approve a new contract with helicopter-maker Sikorsky Aircraft, accepting contract terms similar to those they overwhelmingly rejected six weeks ago when they walked off the job.

Workers voted 1,488 to 1,416 on Sunday to accept the contract. The 3,500 union members met with union leadership in four shifts, during which union negotiators explained the deal.

Union leaders did not endorse the proposal.

"Neither side won. We fought to a bloody draw," said John Murphy, Teamsters vice president. He said the union would continue to fight Sikorsky's attempts to increase employees' share of health insurance costs.

Sikorsky president Jeff Pino said the company was pleased with the vote. Sikorsky had taken out full-page newspaper advertisements to directly appeal to union members to support the contract.

"Sikorsky now enters an exciting new era with tremendous opportunities for all of our employees, and the communities where we live and work," Pino said in a statement. "We remained focused on the future and are steadfast in our commitment to providing our customers with the world's best vertical flight solutions."

The narrow margin of Sunday's vote troubled some union members, although they were happy that they soon will start receiving paychecks again.

Thomas Altieri of Seymour, who has worked for Sikorsky for almost 26 years, said he voted against the contract proposal because he believed the company would have soon made a better offer.

"We've been slapped in the face by people who told us we were like family," he said.

Altieri said he accepts Sunday's vote as the wishes of the majority, and built strong bonds with co-workers while picketing together over the past several weeks.

"We went out together, and now we're going back in together," he said.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell said the agreement was good for the state and the nation.

"I am relieved for the hard working families of Sikorsky," she said. "Getting these professionals back to work under a contract that will keep Sikorsky Aircraft strong for years to come is vital to our economy and jobs throughout the region. Sikorsky is part of the fabric of Connecticut."

Both sides have been under increased pressure as the strike continued. Union members, paid about $25 an hour when on the job, were receiving only $220 a week in union-paid strike benefits.

Sikorsky last week was moving to meet concerns by the U.S. Navy after the Navy said that the strike was cutting into supplies of spare parts for its Seahawk helicopter, used in Iraq and around the world.

A key issue was health insurance. Union officials said the contract offer doubles workers' contributions to their health insurance in the first year of the three-year deal and increases them another 15 percent over the next two years.

Under the expired contract, the workers paid about $26 per week for family coverage, both sides said.

David Cadden, a management professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, said the result of Sunday's union vote was a clear victory for Sikorsky's management.

"I think that in the short run, they'll be trying to shift more and more of their health insurance costs to the employees," he said. "I think you're doing to see more of this in many companies — more and more of management winning, in the sense of getting the cost of health care sloughed off onto the employees."

George David, chairman of Sikorsky's parent company, United Technologies Corp., has said that the company would "stand firm" on the issue because workers throughout UTC's other divisions have agreed to the same kind of health care cost-sharing.

Sikorsky said its health care costs this year would be more than $16,000 per employee for family coverage, up from $9,800 four years ago.

Sikorsky spokesman Bud Grebey said the offer approved by the union Sunday includes a bigger ratification bonus and the option for workers to select retroactive health care coverage and reimbursement for payments they may have made for temporary insurance while on strike.

The contract includes 3.5 percent pay raises in each year, pension improvements and a ratification bonus of $3,000.

The strike, which started Feb. 20, was the first at the helicopter-maker since 1963.