After enduring a nearly monthlong mechanics strike, some new-car dealerships in the Chicago area have broken ranks with their bargaining group and reached separate agreements with their unionized workers.
“The strike is not over; it’s just over for us,” said Bill Koller, service adviser at Sherman Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram in Skokie. “We are happy.”
The 16 mechanics who were on strike at Sherman Dodge went back to work Tuesday morning after the dealership struck its own deal with the Automobile Mechanics’ Local 701, Koller said.
Sherman Dodge joined the more than half-dozen Chicago-area dealerships that decided to take matters into their own hands as the strike entered its fifth week. The New Car Dealership Committee, which bargains on behalf of the dealerships, condemned the move, saying any deals struck away from the bargaining table are worthless. But for some dealerships, enough was enough.
“It was getting to be just too much,” Koller said. “We (have) got customers trying to get cars fixed. … And in the meantime, we were making no money.”
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 the parties have met multiple times at the bargaining table, negotiations appear to be stalled.
Meanwhile, business at the affected dealerships has suffered. Though some have continued offering basic services like oil changes or tire rotations, many had to shut down repairs completely. Some laid off nonunion employees for lack of work.
The Autobarn Mazda of Evanston typically services 40 to 50 cars daily, Service Director Aidan McCarthy said, but some days during the strike saw repairs on only seven or eight vehicles, and those repairs were very basic.
The union mechanics at Autobarn Mazda and six other dealerships under the same ownership voted on separate contracts Monday, said McCarthy, who is also service director at Autobarn Fiat of Evanston. Those deals cover about 45 mechanics.
As soon as the technicians approved the deal, some came right back to work. And they were needed, McCarthy said.
“(We were) not allowed to do any warranty work, any new-car preps, any certified inspections, any recalls — stuff like that,” he said. “I just had a bunch of stuff waiting to get done. We were just barely hanging on.”
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 dealerships affected by this strike are those that bargain with the New Car Dealer Committee.
Committee spokesman Dave Sloan said dealerships involved with the committee cannot go rogue.
“All of these contracts that these dealers are signing are worthless,” he said.
The National Labor Relations Board does not allow employers to leave multiemployer bargaining units during negotiations unless both sides agree or there are unusual circumstances, according to a decision the board made in June in an unrelated case.
The New Car Dealer Committee is ready to file a complaint with the NLRB “if we get an inadequate response from the union,” Sloan said.
“We’re ready to go to the bargaining table with the union,” he said, “but first they need to stop this illegal activity.”
A union representative did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment.
With their mechanics on strike, many dealers fear losing customers, who would be hard to win back. Additionally, customers are confused, with many unaware whether their dealers are unionized. Dealers unaffected by the strike have had to combat that uncertainty, sending out email blasts and updating their websites to let customers know they’re still functioning.
With the mechanics back to work at Autobarn Mazda, McCarthy said they thought it would be “a slow upswing of business,” but by Tuesday afternoon, the dealership had serviced about 40 vehicles.
“Spirits are high. People are happy,” he said, noting that no one expected the strike to last so long. “We gave it as much time as we did. We listened to the NCDC … and (then) it was like, ‘When is this going to end? We can’t do this forever.'”
The last mechanics strike involving Local 701 occurred in 1994 and lasted more than six weeks.