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Honda mechanics working without contract

Hank Sims, Daily Planet staff
Saturday November 17, 2001

More than 80 automobile owners every day drive, tow or roll their problems into the Jim Doten Honda service department. For many Berkeleyans, the Shattuck Avenue auto shop, a department of the family-owned Jim Doten Honda dealership, is the best in the city. 

Mechanics like Jim Courtney and Frank Alvarez – who both grew u in Berkeley and were sons of mechanics – deserve much of the credit for Doten Honda’s service department’s excellent reputation, according to management at American Honda’s northwest division. 

Courtney has spent 27 years fixing cars at Doten; Alvarez has spent 22.  

“We’ve got pride in what we do at this dealership,” said Alvarez. “We feel we’ve got the best technicians in the Bay Area.”  

But, like all 13 mechanics at Doten Honda, they have been working for the last five and a half months without a contract – a situation that has left them more than a little frustrated. 

“Automotive repair is a great business, but the marriage between auto mechanics and auto dealers is a poor one,” said Courtney. “The same people that you buy your car from, we negotiate our salaries with.” 

Doten Honda was for years a member of a regional association of dealerships that bargained with the mechanics’ union, the East Bay Automotive Machinists Lodge, on behalf of all its members. The association would come to an agreement with the union on a contract, and all the dealers would accept the deal. 

Last year, however, Doten Honda dropped out of the association and decided it would bargain with the union directly.  

Kip Siegel, Doten Honda’s general manager, said Friday that he had hoped that dropping out of the association would allow him to negotiate with his employees on a more personal level. He said that he had hoped he could get several of the mechanics – who, today, are usually called “technicians” – to sit with him at the table. 

In any case, while the dealers still represented by the association ratified a four-year contract for their technicians, negotiations at Doten Honda have stalled. 

The problem has caught the attention of executives of the Honda Motor Company. 

On Aug. 31, 2001, John Burke, an assistant manager in American Honda’s Northwest Zone, wrote Siegel to ask him to address the technicians’ concerns. 

“Kip, at our last meeting of the day I was very adamant about the absolute need I see to improve communications between you and the technicians at the dealership,” he wrote. “Quite frankly, your current relations with the technicians are among the poorest I have seen in my 18-year tenure at American Honda. 

“What I find so frustrating about your dealership is the tremendous potential these technicians offer. I told you I was absolutely impressed with the intelligence, professionalism and commitment displayed by all the techs....As I said in our meeting, I look forward to someone putting their best foot forward and demonstrate new leadership to make improvements.” 

Siegel said that the letter was referring specifically to contract negotiations and not to more general employee relations. 

Courtney, who has been the Doten Honda shop steward for 25 years, said that there have been eight proposed contracts that have gone back and forth between management and the technicians. 

One of the major sticking points in talks has been the question of how many “installers” – partially skilled mechanics, usually employed for simple repairs or routine service – the shop will have. 

Installers earn lower wages than regular journeyman technicians, and do not enjoy many of the benefits of apprentice techs. 

Mike Cook, who, as business representative of the East Bay Automotive Machinists Lodge 1546, is in charge of the negotiations between Doten Honda management and the mechanics, said on Friday that the union is “very, very close to closing a new contract.” 

He emphasized that the new contract will include back wages – the extra money that the technicians would have received if the new contract had been approved when the last one ran out. 

“The employer has agreed to make any and all economic improvements retroactive to July 1,” he said. “There are no giveaways. People won’t get hurt by this.” 

Siegel said that the new contract will include raises of $1.50 per hour for the mechanics and would ask for only one new installer. 

But Courtney and Alvarez said that some of the damage has already been done. 

Courtney said he feared that by dragging the contract into the winter – historically, the slowest time for the auto industry – Doten management is attempting to reduce their bargaining power if they decide to strike. 

“The time we have taken to negotiate this contract sets a precedent,” he said. “This could happen every time, now.” 

Cook said that he believed the contract would be acceptable to all parties. 

“We won’t be dealing with a strike here,” he said. 

Alvarez said that technicians were wary when Doten dropped out of the bargaining association. He said that many people put off summer vacations or improvements to their homes. 

“We’ve been preparing financially for a strike, and we’re ready,” he said. 

“Morale is way down because of this,” added Courtney. “In my 27 years, a contract has never taken this long.”