Auto mechanics on strike in Chicago suburbs

Tom Handzik, a veteran mechanic at Castle Chevrolet in Elk Grove Village, said that when he works 40 hours, he wants to be paid for 40 hours.

Instead, he and other union mechanics may get paid less if their projects take longer than what the manufacturer guidelines say. Complications also could lengthen the time for the repair.

"On certain jobs, they just don't take into account what it takes to do the work safely," said Handzik, 61, a 45-year veteran mechanic. "If they say it takes an hour to change something, you have to do it in that time. But they keep changing the time."

This grievance is among the reasons Handzik is among 1,700 union mechanics who walked the picket line Tuesday at about 130 new auto dealerships in Chicago and the suburbs. Fair pay, pension benefits, flex time, better health care and other issues remain in dispute.

The mechanics, members of the Automobile Mechanics Local 701, "overwhelmingly" voted Sunday to strike, the union website said. Sam Cicinelli, directing business representative for the union, was not immediately available for comment.

There are 420 new auto dealerships in the region, including the 130 affected by the current strike. The affected dealerships are in Barrington, Schaumburg, Elmhurst, Libertyville, Bensenville, Arlington Heights, Naperville, St. Charles and elsewhere.

Another 30 dealerships also have union mechanics, but their contracts are on a different renewal cycle. The remaining 260 area dealerships are nonunion.

Messages left for a general manager at Castle and other dealerships were not returned, while other dealership managers declined to talk.

The New Car Dealers Committee, a group representing the affected 130 dealerships in contract negotiations, said the mechanics were offered a 3-year contract with a 5 percent raise each year, said committee spokesman Mark Bilek.

"We started negotiating about six weeks ago and already agreed on 35 different areas," said Bilek. "We felt our final offer on Saturday was a great package."

Bilek disputed the mechanics' view of the manufacturer's guidelines on how long it should take to do a particular repair. If the mechanics get the job done sooner than the industry standards, then they get full credit for the so-called book time.

"If they worked 40 hours, yet did jobs that should have taken a longer time, then they could earn 50 or 60 book hours and literally make even more money," Bilek said.

In addition, the strikers argue they earn far less than what the dealerships charge customers. They said they earn $32 to $34 per hour compared to the $150 to $160 hourly rate dealerships charge consumers. The mechanics said they also must provide thousands of dollars worth of their own tools to use at the dealerships.

"We're just looking to make things fair," said Kevin Wiskari, 52, a mechanic at Castle.

The mechanics said the last time the union held a strike was in 1994.

"We just want to strengthen our contract and make it a better career choice," said Andy Cotsiomitis, 41, the strike captain.

Dealers have been warning customers for weeks that the strike was possible and advised them to either reschedule routine maintenance or go to another dealership unaffected by the strike, Bilek said.

No date has been set for the two sides to meet again. So the length of the strike is unknown.

"Both sides are fairly dug in," Bilek said.

  Union 701 auto mechanics on their first day of striking in front of Castle Chevrolet in Elk Grove. Mark Welsh/
  About 2,000 auto mechanics at 130 new auto dealerships, including Castle Chevrolet in Elk Grove Village, went on strike on Tuesday. Anna Marie Kukec/
  About 2,000 auto mechanics in Chicago and the suburbs from 130 new auto dealerships went on strike on Tuesday. Anna Marie Kukec/
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