September 23, 2009
Ten years ago exactly, Philip Root was fixing jet engines in East Hartford, with 25 years on the job, when word came down that his unit was shutting down.
"Our work was moving to Arkansas," Root said Tuesday, recalling that anxious time. "They were already packing up our tools, fixtures, and we said, 'Now what are we going to do?'"
Root vowed to go back to school to learn another trade.
The Machinists union sued Pratt to save Root's position and 506 others, saying the company failed to live up to a contract requirement that it make a reasonable effort to save Connecticut jobs.
A year later, the union won that case. Most of those 507 workers are still on the factory floor.
Root, of Bristol, did fulfillhis vow, earning an associate degree in computer science, then taking classes toward a bachelor's in business administration. Now 57 with 35 years at the East Hartford-based jet engine-maker, he may be glad he did. The scene is playing out again.
Pratt has again targeted engine overhaul jobs for a move — more than 1,000 this time — and the union, as of Tuesday, has again filed a lawsuit saying the company acted in bad faith and failed to make "every reasonable effort" to save local jobs.
"I hope we get the same judge," Root said. You did, I told him — Janet C. Hall. "That works for me," he said.
This time around, however, the union will have a much tougher job proving to Hall that the company violated its contract.
For starters, Pratt appears to have followed the letter of the law, convening a 45-day negotiating period, extended to 52 days, in which the company sought and received concession offers from the union, and listened to a state offer. At every turn since the July 21 announcement, Pratt has taken pains to say it wants to keep the work in Connecticut and values its local workforce.
Back in 1999, by contrast, Pratt barely made an effort to talk with the union. An executive's offhand comment that the decision was "a no-brainer" became the storied quote of the case. "Their arrogance was much more on display," said Machinists official John Harrity.
This time around, the union is no less convinced that Pratt had its mind made up from the get-go, despite the formal talks.
"It's harder to get at, but that doesn't mean the truth is any different," said Gregg Adler, the union's lawyer then and now.
After years of local cuts, it's less of a surprise this time, Root said, as Pratt closes another plant, in Cheshire, and moves most of the work to a nonunion plant in Columbus, Ga. His group is not among the direct hits in this cut, but he's pretty sure there would be no need for his work as a blender — hand-finishing parts removed from engines at the targeted overhaul plant.
Root, recently divorced with three grandchildren, speaks with wisdom and passion about his work, his prospects as a computer technician and the plight of younger union members — some of whom will lose their houses. On Tuesday, a co-worker said something to Root that cut through the complexity of a case that's hard on workers and company alike.
"He said, 'You know what? These last 10 years were a gift.'"
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