US-NEWS-AUTO-MECHANIC-STRIKE-TB

Striking mechanics from Automobile Mechanics' Local 701 picket outside Berman Infiniti and Nissan Chicago in the Avondale neighborhood on August 9, 2021. 

Those looking to get a car serviced at a Chicago-area dealership may find it will take a while.

More than 800 auto mechanics are on strike after failing to reach an agreement on a new four-year labor contract, essentially shutting down service work at 56 new car dealerships in the city and the suburbs. The last Chicago auto mechanics strike in 2017 lasted for more than seven weeks before a deal was signed.

“They are prepared to stay out as long as it takes to get an agreeable contract,” said Ronnie Gonzalez, a spokesman for Automobile Mechanics’ Local 701 in Carol Stream, Ill., which represents about 6,000 active members, including the striking auto mechanics. “Hopefully, the bargaining process will prevail, and we’ll reach an agreement in a reasonable amount of time.”

Mechanics voted to strike Aug. 1 after the previous labor contract expired and the union rejected a proposal from the New Car Dealer Committee, a bargaining arm of the Chicago Automobile Trade Association.

At issue are such matters as base pay guarantee for mechanics and dealership contributions to the union’s health and welfare fund. But fueling the dispute is a schism at the trade association, with nearly half of the 120 Chicago-area new car dealers that employ union mechanics breaking ranks to negotiate with Local 701 on their own.

The so-called “defector” dealers reached an agreement and ratified it before the expiration of the previous contract. As of Monday, 55 dealers have ratified some form of the defector deal, Gonzalez said. The union wants similar terms from the trade association’s bargaining group.

“The union went to them first and did a deal,” said Dave Sloan, president of the Chicago Automobile Trade Association. “And it’s not a very favorable deal.”

The trade association, which put on the special downsized summer edition of the Chicago Auto Show last month, represents about 400 new car dealerships. The majority of its member dealers do not employ union mechanics, Sloan said.

The biggest stumbling block may be a “most-favored nation” clause in the dealership proposal to ensure a “level playing field” in future labor agreements so that union mechanics across Chicago-area dealers get the same benefits — regardless of who negotiated the contracts.

“There is no issue that appears to be insurmountable,” Sloan said. “But they need to come back to the table so we can hammer out a deal.”

Meanwhile, dozens of dealerships across Chicago and the suburbs are canceling service appointments as mechanics walk the picket line.

Berman Infiniti Chicago opened a facility this year in the Avondale neighborhood that includes 30,000 square feet of service space and 40 service bays. The massive service center has been reduced to “limited capacity” by the strike, according to a message on the dealership’s website.

Customers who click to “schedule service” on the Lexus of Naperville website are told the dealership is “experiencing a work stoppage” and to add their name to a callback list when the stoppage concludes.

Patrick Volvo in Schaumburg, Ill., includes a note on its website that the mechanics’ strike “may cause limitations” in scheduling service.

Like auto dealerships everywhere, Highland Park Ford has been dealing with a dearth of new cars on its lot for much of the year as the global semiconductor chip shortage continues to disrupt auto production. Last week, another revenue stream ran dry when a dozen auto mechanics went on strike.

Marty Price, co-owner of Highland Park Ford, said the dealership has been telling customers needing service to take their cars somewhere else — at least for now.

“You don’t want to lose your customers, but people do need to get their cars fixed,” he said.

Price said he has no intention of joining the defectors and negotiating an agreement with the mechanics outside of the trade association bargaining group.

At the same time, losing the service business is “not a good thing” for the dealership or its customers, Price said, and the prospects of another protracted strike adds an extra level of difficulty to an already challenging year.

“I hope it doesn’t take as long to get settled as last time,” Price said. “I don’t think it will. But I don’t know for sure.”