In Transit: As dealers adjust to new-car shortage, along comes mechanics strike

After weeks of vacant showrooms, suburban auto dealers have adjusted to telling consumers there is a scarcity of new cars courtesy of a microchip shortage, courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic.

You keep calm and sell on, or at least take new-car orders from customers for delivery later. What else could go wrong?

Well, on Aug. 2, auto mechanics hit the picket line at 56 Chicago-area dealerships following a contract dispute between the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 701 and the New Car Dealers Committee (NCDC).

“We got our auto show in, at least,” said Chicago Auto Trade Association President Dave Sloan, referring to an abbreviated Chicago Auto Show held in mid-July.

The strike is “just 56 of 400 dealers (in the region), so it's a fraction, but it's still important and it's frustrating because for the last six months we've been working as a team with the union” to pass legislation regarding reimbursements for warranty work from automakers, Sloan said.

Dealerships affected range from Max Madsen's Aurora Mitsubishi to Arlington Heights Buick to Oakbrook Toyota in Westmont.

Pickets outside in the heat at numerous dealerships along Ogden Avenue in DuPage County agreed on one thing — the situation is frustrating.

“Everybody would rather be inside working,” former mechanic and Local 701 spokesman Ronnie Gonzalez said. “It costs everybody to be on strike, but it would cost a lot more to take an unacceptable contract that's detrimental to our future.”

Union officials say sticking points in the contract offered by NCDC include language that gives dealers the ability to reduce mechanics' pay, an insufficient balance in the health and welfare fund and a section letting owners “cherry pick” provisions in other labor contracts favorable to management and implement them.

Striking workers employed by the 56 dealers are a subgroup of other mechanics Local 701 represents.

The car dealers group countered their proposal “included significant wage and benefit increases,” and language that allows dealerships “to more cost-effectively service customers and ensure that dealers and their service techs are not put at a competitive disadvantage by contracts the union may make with other dealers in the future.”

In summer 2017, a similar strike that lasted for nearly eight weeks led to delays for customers seeking to get their cars fixed. Neither side predicted when the mechanics will return to work this time.

Diesel mechanic Robert Filas' eyes lit up as he described his typical day troubleshooting everything from ambulances to dump trucks instead of picketing outside Packey Webb Ford in Downers Grove.

“Anytime you have to step up on something to see the engine, it's a whole different ballgame,” Filas explained. “I have a lot of steady customers that come in to see me, because they trust me with their vehicle. But it's rewarding, I'm happy when I go home at night.”

You should know

Meanwhile, automakers faced a dearth of semiconductor chips this year after they cut orders from suppliers in 2020 when the pandemic spiraled. But many homebound consumers filled the gap by buying computers and other electronics — causing a supply disconnect.

“It's been absolutely dreadful,” said Greg Webb of Packey Webb Ford. “Usually I have about 300 to 350 new vehicles sitting on the ground. Now it's about 15. We're selling them literally as they get off the transport trucks.”

In a meeting with Ford last week, the manufacturer “was telling us that it's really going to be closer to Jan. 1 before we get to a point where we have our normal on-the-ground stock.”

Webb does expect vehicle shipments to improve each month, and in the meantime, customers are learning a new-old trick — ordering cars.

Sloan added, “when I was growing up, my dad who worked for Ford always ordered our cars. The day it was delivered was a big day.”

Gridlock alert

Lake County drivers should prepare for delays from intermittent lane closures at the intersection of Routes 45 and 173 in Antioch Township as IDOT crews rebuild pavement and install new traffic signals. Work should wrap up in summer 2022.

One more thing

How can a Tri-State Tollway (I-294) project affect traffic on the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90)? When massive steel beams that will hold up the new southbound I-294 Mile Long Bridge are being carted on I-90. The beams will be moving east on I-90 and south on I-294 to the construction site between 4 a.m. and noon this week.

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