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Mechanics at roughly 130 new car dealerships in Chicago went on strike Tuesday morning. According to the Automobile Mechanics’ Union Local 701, nearly 2,000 grease monkeys threw in the towel before also tossing a wrench into dealer maintenance schedules — leaving customers to fend for themselves.

On the first day of the strike, Mark Bilek, senior director of communications for the Chicago Automobile Trade Association, issued a statement that most affected dealerships would remain open with partially functional service centers. “They may not be performing complex repairs, but oil changes, stuff like that, it’s business as usual,” said Bilek in a statement.

However, the union stated that wouldn’t last for long if demands were not met.  It has been bargaining with the New Car Dealer Committee since June, citing uncompensated time, unacceptable schedules, unsatisfactory pay, and no opportunities for career progression as its chief complaints. Deadlocked since negotiations began, the union decided to halt all work at the beginning of August — despite Bilek’s assurance that customers could still get their oil changed or tires rotated. 

Sam Cicinelli, directing business representative for Local 701, issued a counter statement to the Chicago Tribune specifying that routine services were off-the-table on Tuesday afternoon. “They’re not doing that,” he explained. “There’s nobody that’s in there to do oil changes or anything of the sort.”

The situation did not improved as the week progressed. David Sloan, president of the Chicago Automobile Trade Association, specified no moves had been made by dealerships to speed up negotiations and union members are actively picketing outside most of the affected stores.

“Dealerships are trying their best to keep things going,” Sloan told Automotive News. “They’re rescheduling some bigger jobs but trying to keep smaller jobs continued. They’re making the best of a bad situation.”

Mechanics are hoping for an assurance of 40 hours per week and pay less dependent upon productivity, claiming there isn’t always a vehicle waiting for them in the service bay. The union calls the pay structure “draconian” and accuses it of “prohibiting [its] ability to attract young, aspiring mechanics to enter the auto repair profession.”

So far, dealers have offered a 5 percent annual pay increase over the next three years to bolster incentive-based pay. Sloan said workers “overwhelmingly” rejected the proposal.

Presently, neither side has expressed any idea as to when the strike might conclude.

The gripe from workers is that, once again, the majority of the proposed increase is dependent upon the work that is done or currently available, which doesn’t provide them with a predictable income.

Brian Ilic, a mechanic on strike with Local 701, said dealer management made their offer to the union on July 31st, the same day the previous contract expired. “I feel they thought if we were given a last minute decision we would take the subpar offer and not strike,” he said. “None of the industry problems we asked to address were even addressed. Most were what seems like just rejected with total disregard,” Ilic continued. “I think they felt if they threw money at it, we would be happy.”

The consensus between Ilic and the rest of the striking mechanics seems to be that the Automobile Trade Association has ignored their requests for a 40-hour week and focused on incentive-based pay increases that would be difficult to take advantage of, especially in an era where cars need less routine maintenance and dealers continue keeping hours low. Extended warranties on vehicles that need less work overall means more of the wrenching done at dealerships is paid at automaker rates, rather than higher customer-pay rates. “This makes the incentive rate harder to achieve,” Ilic concluded.

However, Sloan says the incentive-based payment system exists for a reason. “It’s in the best interest of the dealers to reward their most productive technicians,” Sloan said. “They have to keep their most productive technicians busy and keep their service department running efficiently.”

Well, how efficiently are they running right now?

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