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24 hourly workers at Calspan go on strike

Twenty-four hourly workers at Calspan Corp. went on strike Tuesday after they were unable to reach agreement with their employer on a new contract.

The workers are members of Lodge 1180, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. They include mechanics, machinists, aircraft inspectors and wind tunnel workers.

They work at Calspan’s facilities in Cheektowaga, on Genesee Street across from Buffalo Niagara International Airport, and next to Niagara Falls International Airport. Calspan has a range of aeronautics and transportation testing operations spread across the sites.

Peter Cooney, a business agent with the union, said the Calspan workers voted down two contract proposals – in both cases unanimously – before starting their walkout Tuesday. The workers’ contract expired Sunday night. Cooney said no talks are scheduled.

Calspan, in a statement, said: “The union’s decision was made after weeks of negotiations where both sides worked to try and reach a new agreement. The company does not expect any disruption in services and will continue to negotiate with the union until an agreement is reached.”

Strikes have been uncommon, though certainly not unheard of, in Western New York in recent years.

For instance, Rural/Metro Medical Services workers conducted a strike last July that lasted less than eight hours before a tentative agreement was reached. Sorrento Lactalis cheese factory workers walked out for less than three days in 2012, and Verizon Communications workers were on strike for about two weeks in 2011.

At HealthNow New York, the circumstances were different: about 400 area workers were affected by a 2011 lockout initiated by the health insurer that lasted more than 12 weeks. There have been many other situations where strikes were threatened but averted by last-minute agreements. Such was the case at Goodyear’s network of plants in summer 2013.

Frederick G. Floss, a professor of economics and finance at SUNY Buffalo State, said there are several reasons that strikes are less common locally these days.

Contracts often contain language calling for terms to remain in effect beyond the expiration of an agreement, except for elements with specific dates attached to them, he said. “Everyone knows what the rules of the game are.”

And under provisions of the Taylor Law, which covers New York State public employees, “both sides can take a breath and continue working on a proposal,” he said. The law provides workers with contract protections while prohibiting them from striking.

There are fewer manufacturing strikes locally similar to the walkout at American Axle & Manufacturing in 2008. Floss said that could be a byproduct of fewer manufacturers in the mix, with a declining share of manufacturing jobs in the region over the years.

And both management and labor have to make calculations when a work stoppage looms, he said. Employers consider how their operations would be affected by having skilled workers off the job instead of the production floor. And the workers measure the risk of walking off the job, and whether their employer might try to replace them.

Nationally, there were 15 major strikes and lockouts – involving at least 1,000 workers and lasting at least one shift – in 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was down from 19 in 2012.

The total has fluctuated over the years, but it has not exceeded 40 in one year since 1994. In the 1970s, the number of large strikes and lockouts exceeded 200 or even 400 per year.

At Calspan, Cooney said the sticking points include workers’ terms and conditions of employment. Management, he said, is “trying to shift as much from the (collective-bargaining agreement) to the employee handbook” with little input from the union.

Another issue involves work hours: Cooney said the company wants to require 18 hours per week of mandatory overtime.