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Auto mechanics set to vote on offer that could end nearly 2-week strike

Hundreds of Chicago-area auto mechanics are set to vote Saturday on an offer from a group of unionized new-car dealerships that could end a nearly two-week strike, but a union representative said it is unlikely members will approve the contract.

Nearly 2,000 mechanics went on strike Aug. 1 after their union bargained for weeks, demanding the New Car Dealer Committee, which negotiates on behalf of the dealerships, present a contract that fixes sticking points such as uncompensated work time.

The parties have since returned to the bargaining table twice, and the Automobile Mechanics' Union Local 701 remains unsatisfied. Meanwhile, dealerships face a growing amount of lost business as customers with car troubles seek repairs elsewhere.

The dealers presented an offer to the mechanics Thursday after the latest bargaining session.

"Chances are it's going to get rejected again because they're going to continue to not address the issues and we're going to remain on the street," said Sam Cicinelli, directing business representative for Local 701.

The biggest remaining issue, Cicinelli said, is having to work for free while on the clock.

Mechanics are often paid based on billable hours set by carmakers. For example, if a manufacturer says an oil change should take one hour, the mechanic gets compensated for one hour of work, regardless of whether he or she runs into an issue and has to spend longer on the job.

Dave Radelet, an outside lawyer acting as the spokesman for the dealers, said it can go the other way. Finish the job in 30 minutes and get compensated for an hour, Radelet said.

Additionally, dealers are also subject to aggressive repair times set by manufacturers, he said.

"(The mechanics are) asking to be compensated for time the dealer's not compensated for," he said. "How can we remain competitive?"

In age when auto service chains dominate seemingly every street corner, Radelet said, remaining competitive is vital. Dealerships must compete with the nonunion dealerships too.

There are about 420 new-car dealerships in the Chicago area. Of those, about 180 are unionized. In Illinois, there are no partially unionized dealerships. The mechanics at each dealership decide if they will be in the union. The roughly 140 dealerships affected by this strike are those that bargain with the New Car Dealer Committee.

Though several sticking points do remain, Radelet said the two sides reached dozens of tentative agreements on other concerns the union brought to the table.

The offer presented to the union is a rich one, he said, with increases that include pay raises of nearly 5 percent or more for each year of the three-year contract and coverage of nearly all cost increases for the employees' health and welfare benefits package.

But the changes weren't enough, said Cicinelli, who expects the offer to be rejected in Saturday's vote.

It's not just union members' livelihoods at stake with this contract, Cicinelli said. Nonunionized and independent dealers are also watching how the negotiations unfold.

"If we make a gain, then they'll subsequently give (their mechanics) that gain knowing ... that's what the industry pattern is," he said. "There's a trickle-down effect."

If the contract offer is rejected, the parties will go back to a federal mediator, who sent them to the bargaining table earlier this week, Cicinelli said. And customers will continue to be inconvenienced by the strike.

One of the most important things, Radelet added, is that the mechanics are given a fair and private opportunity to vote on the offer.

Dealerships have turned away customers in need of car service during the strike. Some have maintained minimal operations, Radelet said, while others have been shut down completely.

"In this market, with so many alternatives for the customer, off they go to another place," he said. "Once you lose a customer, our experience tells us it's extremely difficult to get them back."

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