No joy in strike, auto mechanics say

Heat waves. Obscene gestures. Random acts of kindness. Honks of support.

It's Week 4 on the picket line for members of Automobile Mechanics Local 701, and the thrill is gone. If there ever was one.

"There's no silver lining," said Kevin Collins, a big, bearded mechanic standing outside Oakbrook Toyota Friday. "It's been a nightmare."

About 1,700 auto mechanics went on strike Aug. 1 at 130 new-car dealerships across the suburbs after rejecting a three-year contract offering a 5 percent raise per year.

As the labor action drags on, many are worried about their employment future and high-cost temporary health insurance if there's no breakthrough in negotiations.

One big issue for the union is a guaranteed 40-hour workweek. Strikers said Friday they're not being paid for all the hours they're at work.

Mark Bilek, a spokesman for the New Car Dealers Committee that represents the 130 dealerships, said the union and the dealers have talked in recent days and both sides are considering options. "Hopefully a resolution can be found quickly," he said.

  Automobile Mechanics Local 701 members John Vitug and Iggy Perez hold up their picket signs in front of Oakbrook Toyota along Ogden Avenue in Westmont. Daniel White/

With no tent for shelter, the Oakbrook Toyota crew sets up camp daily with a radio and white plastic chairs on Ogden Avenue, where a constant stream of traffic roars by, making conversation at a normal level impossible.

Shifts last from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. or from noon to 9 p.m. or so.

"Rain is nice. ... The worst day was probably when it reached 90 degrees," said Vince Varco, a West Chicagoan who's fixed cars at Oakbrook Toyota for 17 years.

A sense of humor helps. "I just got a 'bird,'" a grinning John Vitug said, referring to the obscene gesture.

Drivers also have yelled "Get a job!" and "Go back to work!"

But there also are plenty of honks encouraging the pickets - big blasts from trucks, beeps from smaller cars, and a prolonged blare from a dealership employee who turns into the lot.

"He's our biggest supporter," Varco said.

Early in August, a 70-year-old woman showed up, told the workers, "I've been through stuff like this," and dropped off a case of water.

  Automobile Mechanics Local 701 member Paul Zoltowski, center, watches traffic while John Vitug waves to passing drivers in front of Oakbrook Toyota in Westmont. Daniel White/

Strangers have donated bottled water, cookies and snacks. Getting tired of grilling hot dogs, the men bought takeout at a nearby Chinese restaurant and chatted with a worker mopping floors.

The next day, "she brought us coffee," Varco said. "People like that make us feel a lot better."

Isn't being a mechanic a breeze these days with self-diagnosing computers?

No. Repairing smart cars that park themselves and detect pedestrians requires constant training, Varco said.

"People think you plug a computer in and it tells you what's wrong ... but if the computer's bad and giving you bad information, you've got to spend hours figuring it out. Computers guide us, but they don't pull the trigger to tell us what's wrong."

<h3 class="leadin">You should know

Paul Zoltowski has worked at Oakbrook Toyota for three decades. "I've got from $20,000 to $30,000 in tools, but every year my pay is going down," he said. "We're just asking for a fair contract."

Meanwhile, Bilek told the Daily Herald previously that "this strike is hurting everyone and everyone would like to see an agreement, sooner rather than later."

The auto dealers and union had agreed on 35 different items in July and "felt our final offer ... was a great package," he said Aug. 1.

Oakbrook Toyota officials had no comment.

Got an opinion on the strike? Drop me an email at

<h3 class="leadin">One more thing

Illinois tollway officials confirmed the new Jane Addams Tollway (I-90) "smart corridor" featuring digital signs with current travel times, alerts and lane shift information will be unveiled Sept. 5. Also debuting are Pace express buses that can ride the shoulders on I-90 to improve on-time performance. A new park-and-ride lot at Barrington Road with stops on the mainline and pedestrian bridge will be completed later this year. For info, go to

<h3 class="leadin">Gridlock alert

Sorry, Barrington. IDOT is closing lanes on Lake-Cook Road from Route 14 to Ela Road during the day at off-peak times for a culvert project. Work will wrap up this fall.

<h3 class="leadin">Grim prognosis

The National Safety Council warns that 421 people could die in vehicle crashes over the Labor Day holiday from Friday to Sept. 4. It's the highest number of fatalities the council has projected since 2008. The average number of deaths is 378 over a long weekend. The number of people injured in crashes is estimated at 48,400.

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