Jobs top issue in Pratt & Whitney-Machinists talks

HARTFORD, Conn. — Jet engine manufacturer Pratt &Whitney and the Machinists union begin negotiations on Thursday for a new contract governing pay, benefits, work rules and other conditions, but the top issue will be jobs.

Neither company nor union representatives would discuss the issues expected to dominate negotiations. But union officials have said they might not recommend a contract for ratification without specific language about the number of jobs.

“If management does not come to the bargaining table with a commitment to keep our jobs in Connecticut, you will have a crucial decision to make,” the union said in a message on its website to members this summer. “If management continues to ignore covered work and past commitments, how can the committee recommend a contract?”

Pratt &Whitney employs about 32,000 workers worldwide, with about 15,000 in the United States. It has about 9,000 employees in Connecticut, with about 3,000 covered by the contract, the company said.

The battle over jobs is not new. Top-paid manufacturing jobs — at Pratt &Whitney or anywhere else — are increasingly scarce as manufacturers squeeze out productivity from fewer workers and find cost-cutting a principal source of boosting profit.

Most recently, Pratt &Whitney lost a legal battle in 2010 to shut down engine repair shops in East Hartford and Cheshire to cut labor costs and move jobs closer to customers. It eventually won at the bargaining table what it lost in federal court: closing the two plants and shifting hundreds of jobs to Columbus, Ga., Singapore and Japan. The union won concessions over severance pay for workers forced out.

In the first nine months of the year, Pratt &Whitney posted revenue of $10.4 billion, up 3 percent from the same period in 2012. Operating profit rose a far stronger 15 percent, to $1.4 billion in the nine-month period, as the company wrung out more productivity and reduced costs, including axing nearly 1,000 salaried and hourly jobs this year.

Pratt &Whitney President David Hess said in April that its military program likely will falter in the short term as the company transitions from military engines such as the F-22 that have ended production. However, engine orders are expected to pick up in a few years with an increase in production of joint strike fighter engines.

Teal Group aviation consultant Richard Aboulafia said United Technologies is “one of the very few” companies in the industry with a sizable manufacturing presence in the Northeast. He compared it to Boeing, which has a similarly large presence in the Northwest.

“There, too, you had the exact same confrontation with the union over moving jobs,” he said. “The best the union can do is find a compromise, to save jobs as best it can.”

Don Klepper-Smith, an economist who advised former Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, said Connecticut and other Northeast states are finding it harder to compete for well-paid manufacturing jobs. An “aerospace cluster” is forming in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida, where unions are scarcer and taxes and energy costs are lower, he said.

“We’re facing an uphill climb with respect to job creation,” he said.

David Cadden, a business professor at Quinnipiac University, said even if the Machinists win the immediate fight to keep jobs, the battle will continue.

“I think unfortunately in Connecticut you’re going to see more and more manufacturing jobs going offshore and to right-to-work states,” he said.

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