Machinists strike Chattanooga’s Mueller for the first time since 1976

For the first time since 1976, the International Association of Machinists union at water valve and faucet maker Mueller Co. in Chattanooga is on strike after workers voted overwhelmingly on Sunday to reject the company’s latest contract offer.

The plant with 592 employees on the Amnicola Highway will continue to operate, at least for the time being. Workers represented by the larger United Steelworkers union at the Mueller plant approved their own contract last year but can vote this week to honor the machinists’ strike.

The machinists’ union represents 102 hourly workers at the Chattanooga Mueller plant, or about 17% of the workers at the plant, and not all machinists are union members or are on strike.

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The striking mechanics complained that Muller was proposing shift rotations to limit overtime and overtime pay, particularly at weekends, shifting to four 10-hour workdays during the week or three 12-hour shifts at weekends, they said in interviews at the picket.

“They’re trying to shift our work schedules and take away a lot of our overtime,” said David Combs, a qualified maintenance worker who has worked at Mueller’s Chattanooga plant for 45 years. “I think the pay package was pretty decent, but we just don’t want them changing hours.”

Buck Bales, a veteran mechanic who has worked at Mueller for three years, said the new contract would increase wages by 7.25% while health insurance premiums would increase by 8%. The change in working hours and higher insurance costs caused all but a handful of workers to turn down the contract offer, Bales said.

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Other striking workers said they don’t like it when new hires are paid more than they get for years of skilled work.

“We’re highly skilled maintenance workers who have been doing this for years, and now they’re bringing in unskilled workers and in some cases paying more than the skilled tradesmen,” said John Pekala, a maintenance worker at the Mueller plant for 38 years. “None of us really want to go on strike. We all have families and want to keep working, but you can’t pay unskilled workers more than skilled craftsmen.”

Robin Keegan, communications director for the Atlanta-based Mueller Co., said the contract offered to the machinists’ union is comparable to what was offered and accepted last year by the United Steelworkers Union at the Chattanooga plant and other Mueller manufacturing sites.

“We’ve had several negotiation sessions between the parties, during which numerous proposals and counter-proposals have been exchanged, and we feel that as a company we make fair and reasonable wage and benefit proposals,” Keegan said in a phone interview Monday. “We have and will continue to negotiate in good faith with the IAM to achieve a collective bargaining agreement for all.”

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Keegan said the schedule and operational changes proposed in the contract are “intended to improve safety and productivity.”

“We have requested an extension (of the current contract) which would come into effect this Friday but we have yet to hear a response from the union,” Keegan said.

Originally built in 1965, the Chattanooga Mueller facility manufactures water valves and valve components. Mueller’s water division also operates manufacturing facilities in Cleveland, Tennessee; Albertville, Alabama; Decatur, Illinois; Brownsville, Texas, and Ontario, Canada.

Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or 423-757-6340

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