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Doten Honda Workers Strike Against New Ownership By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday June 17, 2005

For 27 years, Nat Courtney and Frank Alvarez, former classmates at St. Mary’s High School, fixed cars at Jim Doten Honda. Wednesday they were among 24 current and former technicians picketing outside the dealership accusing the new ownership of union busting. 

The workers, represented by the East Bay Automotive Machinists Lodge Local 1546, said they plan to picket until the new owners agree to rehire the workers they dismissed upon taking over the dealership. 

The first negotiating session between the two sides is scheduled for today (Friday). 

“A lot of us have been here for decades and now they’re trying to break us up and cheat us out of our pension,” said Alvarez, 48, who began working at the dealership in 1978. 

Steve Hayworth, new general manager of the dealership, now called Berkeley Honda, said that management was willing to talk to the union and that it has offered workers a more lucrative package without a union contract. Despite having more than half of his mechanics and machinists walk off the job, he said the service department remained open and reported no service delays. 

Upon purchasing the dealership at 2600 Shattuck Ave. on June 1, the new ownership group headed by Stephen Beinke, a Danville businessman, made all employees reapply for their jobs. In the repair shop, management rehired 10 Local 1546 members, but let 12 go. 

One of the mechanics released was Courtney, a 31-year veteran of the dealership and the union’s shop steward. Local 1546 has filed unfair labor charges against the dealership, alleging that Courtney was not rehired because of his position in the union. 

“They called me Memorial Day weekend and said, ‘You’re simply not going to work for us, you’re free to go on with your life,’” said Courtney, whose father, also a mechanic, worked for the Doten family’s original Pontiac dealership on Telegraph Avenue. 

The new management’s proposals to staffers who agreed to work without the union contract included more money and similar health benefits, but replaced pension contributions with a 401K individual retirement plan. 

“These guys know the value of their pensions,” said Michael Cook, a business representative for Local 1546. The pension plan, part of a regional pool that includes over 20,000 auto parts workers, guarantees them a lifetime annuity with an option for their spouses to continue receiving money after they die. 

“I don’t know of any 401K plan that does that,” Cook said. 

Courtney said he was two years away from qualifying for a full pension. Alvarez, who was rehired, said he was four years away. To safeguard pension contributions temporarily and preserve the jobs of the whole Doten staff, Cook said the union requested a one-year interim contract, which management rejected. 

The union was working under a four year contract set to expire at the end of June. However, that deal was exclusively with Doten Honda and does not transfer to the new ownership, Cook said. 

For years the dealership was a member of a regional association of dealerships that bargained with the union 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. 

In 2001, however, Doten dropped out of the association and decided to bargain with the union directly. 

The new ownership group was under no obligation to rehire the workers. However, since the auto shop, at this point, is comprised of a majority of union workers, management is required to deal with the union for a certain period. But if more non-union workers are brought in and make up a majority of the auto shop employees, the workers can call to decertify the union. 

“It’s our belief that we’re being used to train the new guys and over time they’ll find more of them to take our jobs until it’s not a union shop,” Alvarez said. The union fears that management is screening new hires for union sympathies. So far none of the new hires have joined the union, Cook said, even though they were offered the option of paying nominal dues. 

Hayworth said management had no intention of ousting any more long-term employees. 

“We want them to stay here,” he said. “That’s why we offered them salaries and benefits that far and away exceeded anything they could get from their bargaining unit.” 

In the Bay Area about half of the dealerships have union repair shops, according to a report in Ward’s Auto World, an industry newsletter. In Berkeley, McKevitt Volvo and Nissan is a union shop, while Weatherford BMW Berkeley and Toyota are not.