Whidbey Navy base workers join machinists union

More than 220 civilian employees working on Whidbey Island Naval Air Station now have a lot more might behind their swing.

Following a year-long effort, the workers overwhelmingly voted this past December to join Machinists Union District Lodge 751, a division of the one of the largest aerospace unions in the country, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

The new union members are not employed by the U.S. Navy but are contracted through URS Corporation, an international defense contractor, to perform maintenance work on electronic warfare jets, such as the EA-6B Prowlers and EA-18G Growler aircraft.

For many of the workers, the successful entry into the union comes as a huge relief. The process to organize has been long and contentious, said Coupeville resident Ryan Weatherford, a 37-year-old corrosion mechanic and plane captain for Growlers.

“It’s been a big struggle,” Weatherford said.

The past few months have been particularly difficult. The workers had for years worked for L-3 Communications. They became contracted employees of URS when L-3 lost the bid to maintain jets for the Navy this past November.

The workers were already engaged in talks with the union and, according to Weatherford, URS officials did not encourage efforts to organize.

A New York City public relations firm did return a call to URS for comment but company officials did not respond to requests for an interview.

District 751 President Tom Wroblewski also did not respond to requests for an interview. However, in a Jan. 13 news release, Wroblewski said the workers contacted the district early in 2010 with hopes of getting their pay commensurate with other industry workers in Western Washington who are performing similar work.

They also wanted a written agreement to cover work they do when assigned to remote locations, and a fairer process for filling job openings, promotions and downgrades.

“We have a lot of highly skilled members who do work that’s essential for America’s defense,” Wroblewski said in the release. “They deserve to be paid fairly, and to be treated fairly when it comes to promotions and temporary duty assignments. A Machinists Union contract can give them both.”

The release went on to credit the union with a track record of negotiating better wages and benefits for civilian employees at military bases across Washington under the Service Contract Act, the federal law that governs union contracts for defense contractors.

Union spokesman Byran Corliss confirmed that about 90 percent of the workers are local residents and not long-distance commuters, such as Boeing employees who live on Whidbey but travel daily to jobs in Everett and Seattle.

“As far as I know most live on the island,” Corliss said.

Of the approximately 220 workers, 82 percent voted to organize in a Dec. 27 election. The results were certified by the National Labor Relations Board on Jan. 3, and the union is now moving to negotiate their first contract, the release said.

According to Weatherford, organization is stressful for all involved and it’s too soon to vilify URS. They may yet prove themselves to be a good employer. However, this was a necessary step, he said, and is relieved that it is finally over.

“I’m not trying to slam URS but there have been a lot of people nervous about their jobs, so this is a good thing,” he said.

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