As union votes, ABF-pact critics arise

Lisa Hammersly
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
June 12, 2013
View the original piece

Teamsters union leaders are urging more than 7,000 of their members to approve a new, five-year contract with ABF Freight System Inc. in Fort Smith, one of the nation’s largest trucking firms.

But as members spend June casting their ballots, they’re also hearing voices critical of the agreement the trucking company says it must have to survive.

“I want to ask everybody to endorse this agreement, back this agreement,” International Brotherhood of Teamsters General President James Hoffa said during a recent telephone conference call to members. 

“This is an agreement we can be proud of,” Hoffa said in a recorded message. “I urge you to vote ‘yes’ when you get your ballots.”

But Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a group of union members often critical of Hoffa’s administration, featured a photograph on its website Tuesday of four ABF workers wearing T-shirts with “Vote No” printed on them. 

The website also quotes members who are critical of the union’s proposed concessions, which include a 7 percent pay cut the first year. The cut is followed, however, by pay raises of 2 percent each for the next three years, then 2.5 percent the last year. 

“They say we catch up over the life of the contract, but that just gets us back to where we stand now,” a North Carolina driver was quoted as saying on the Teamsters for a Democratic Union website. “With the cost of living rising over the next five years, we gain nothing.” 

The group’s national organizer, Ken Paff, said Tuesday that “the contract may well pass.” 

Paff said a vote against the contract could allow the union to pursue a strike against ABF. And Paff says that possibility probably would push more Teamsters to vote in favor of the contract. A strike, said Paff, “would be devastating to both sides.” 

The proposed contract was approved unanimously May 20 by leaders of 160 local Teamster unions that serve ABF, the Teamsters announced last month. 

During a June 3 conference call to members, Teamsters chief economist Mike Conyngham said the union has “conducted an extraordinary amount of financial due diligence over the past nine months, reviewed hundreds of public and nonpublic documents.”

“The only conclusion we could come to is that the operating losses at ABF are real and they will continue unless we do something,” Conyngham said. “The changes in this contract, we believe, both economic and operational, are necessary for the survival of this company. They represent the minimum necessary to see this company through.”

ABF is the largest subsidiary of Arkansas Best Corp., ranked the nation’s 13th largest freight carrier. Arkansas Best Chief Executive Judy McReynolds has said the contract would allow the company to restore profitability. Arkansas Best reported a net loss of $7.7 million for 2012 and $13.4 million for this year’s first quarter. 

As the Teamsters noted in the conference call, ABF spokesman Kathy Fieweger said Tuesday that “the terms of the new contract provide the minimum level of relief needed for ABF to get back on track. We hope all of our union employees will consider their choice very carefully and ratify the agreement that was achieved after many months of hard work between the two parties.” 

A Teamster spokesman declined to comment further Tuesday

Teamsters-ABF contract negotiations started in December and reached a tentative agreement May 3. To be ratified, Teamsters members have to approve it by a simple majority. 

In addition to changes in pay rates, details of the proposed contract include: 

Loss of one week vacation across the board. 

The current health and welfare benefits. Introduction of work-rule flexibility, such as supervisors handling dock pickups if no dockworker is on duty. Profit-sharing bonus if operating ratio reaches 96 percent or lower.

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