Entering its fourth week, Chicago-area mechanics strike causing confusion for customers

As a Chicago-area mechanics strike heads into its fourth week, dealerships whose mechanics are still on the job have been left sorting out mounting customer confusion.

"Everybody thinks we're going to be closed," said Jeff Dowell, service manager at Grossinger Honda in the West Rogers Park neighborhood.

Mechanics at almost 140 new-car dealerships throughout the Chicago area went on strike Aug. 1, demanding a contract that resolves sticking points such as uncompensated work time.

Though some customers from striking dealerships have turned to the still-open shops, managers said there hasn't been a huge business boom. Some customers with warranty or recall issues have found new dealers to fix them, but the biggest effect those dealers have seen is confusion.

There are about 420 new-car dealerships in the Chicago area. Of those, about 180 are unionized. The dealerships affected by this strike are those that bargain with the New Car Dealer Committee.

But most customers don't seem to know the difference.

"The media ... has everybody thinking that everyone's on strike," Dowell said. "I have a lot of my customers coming in like, 'Oh, I just didn't think you'd be open.'"

Grossinger sent out an email earlier this month notifying customers "that our service department is still open and operating as normal, and all our technicians are working." It offered 10 percent off customers' next service visit if they mention the email.

With the strike dragging on, Dowell said he's debating sending customers another notification. He doesn't want to spend too much on it though. "The strike could end tomorrow," he said.

Grossinger is seeing some customers who have warranty issues seeking alternatives to their dealerships on strike, Dowell said.

Some of the affected dealerships have had to shut down auto repairs completely and others have laid off nonunion employees for lack of work, said Dave Radelet, an outside lawyer acting as the spokesman for the dealers.

Some are scraping by with the basics, like oil changes and tire rotations, and most have stopped scheduling appointments.

That means the affected dealerships are not doing work on cars with recalled parts, said Sam Cicinelli, directing business representative for the Automobile Mechanics' Local 701. However, he's not aware of any current recalls that require immediate attention.

Driving any vehicle with an open recall is not suggested, said Mark Bilek, who spoke on behalf of the New Car Dealer Committee, in an emailed statement. But repairs are still being performed at the hundreds of new-car dealerships not on strike.

"Consumers with open recalls are urged to call their local new-car dealer to schedule an appointment as soon as possible," he said.

Bredemann Toyota in Park Ridge has seen a 5 to 10 percent increase in business as a result of the strike, said Mike Cooper, service director at the dealership.

As the strike wears on though, Cooper said he expects affected dealerships to lose more and more business because customers just won't be able to wait any longer.

And once that business is gone, it's hard to get it back.

"We all offer the same services," he said. "The only difference is the people that offer them to you."

Bredemann Toyota sent an email to customers Aug. 8 that used some bold, all-capital letters to declare that the service team "is NOT AFFECTED by the strike" and has plenty of availability.

"(There's) a lot of confusion in the business, in the marketplace," Cooper said. "No matter what you're driving, you just don't know."

Members of Local 701 rejected the latest offer from the New Car Dealer Committee in a vote held Aug. 12. Local 701 represents about 2,000 mechanics. The parties have not set a date to return to the bargaining table.

The last mechanics strike involving Local 701 occurred in 1994, Cicinelli said. According to reports in the Chicago Tribune, that strike affected about 2,700 mechanics and lasted more than six weeks.

The New Car Dealer Committee renegotiates its contracts with Local 701 about every three or four years, Radelet said. But this time has been harder than most.

There have been changes in the service sector that affect technicians, Radelet said. Cars are built better than they once were, and manufacturers have become aggressive in reducing repair times for certain jobs.

"Those kinds of pressures are very real," Radelet said. "But the same pressures are being brought to bear on the dealers themselves."

A list of affected dealerships is available at www.mech701.org/saa.html.

amarotti@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @AllyMarotti

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