At 1 p.m. today, members of the Air Engineering Metal Trades Council (AEMTC) officially went on strike at Arnold Air Force Base.

Negotiations between NAS, Chugach and AEMTC did not yield a new collective bargaining agreement before the previous agreement between NAS and AEMTC members expired at 11 p.m. Wednesday, June 30. AEMTC members did not immediately go on strike, however. They chose Friday afternoon to make their move.

A small group of picketers gathered outside Gate 2 of Arnold Air Force Base, which was pre-designated by AEDC Commander Col. Jeffrey Geraghty as the official protest spot earlier this week.

Strikers donned signs announcing their intent to protest "unfair labor practices" by NAS and Chugach. NAS--National Aerospace Solutions, LCC--is the main contractor at Arnold Air Force Base and the Arnold Engineering Development Complex. Chugach is a subcontractor.

The main sticking point between union members and NAS is a dispute over wages, health insurance and disability. According to Jimmy Hart, the President of Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO, all the union wants are wages above inflation, health insurance and disability insurance.

"We need wages that bring us up above inflation," he told The News Wednesday afternoon. "We need to maintain our health care benefits at a reasonable cost, and we need to maintain our disability."

Strikers said they are ready to be outside Gate 2 for the long haul. By late afternoon, the crowd of picketers had grown some, with union members carpooling to the picket line. The parking lot outside Gate 1/Arnold Fitness Center, was set up as a de facto parking area for union members to gather in order to carpool; however, AEDC police had blocked half the lot with cones. Additionally, Gate 1 was blocked by cones and concrete barricades moved over by a forklift.

Strikers told The News that if anyone wishes to show solidarity with them, they should honk loudly as they pass by Gate 2.

Hart spoke with The News again Friday afternoon, saying the next steps were to wait for NAS to come back to the table and negotiate with the union.

"The next steps are the company and the union, we need to get talking and come to an agreement," he said. "The company needs to come off their hardline positions that affect our economic wellbeing and our health and our welfare. The company has been very, very rigid. They're responsible for this very unfortunate incident today that affects not only the Air Force and the workers, but also the communities of Manchester and Tullahoma, who we are fully committed to."

Hart said they apologized for any inconvenience the strike would cause on the two cities, but the union had no other choice.

"They put our backs to the wall," Hart said.

Hart reiterated the union's demands for better wages, health insurance coverage and disability insurance. The disability issue is a large component of the union's dispute with NAS.

"If you're familiar with Arnold Air Force Base and the job that gets done in there, it's a very, very dangerous job, and workers get hurt all the time," he said. "Sometimes they get severely hurt. We have a disability plan which, three years ago was cut from a 24-month plan to an 18-month plan, and the company is trying now to cut it further."

Hart said the union has anywhere from 30 to 50 severely injured workers at Arnold, making the cut to disability a non-negotiable item.

"The health and safety for our members is a non-negotiable item," Hart said.

Wages, he added, had to stay above inflation, particularly if the workers were going to get health care increases and keep up with the rising costs of gas, food and housing.

"What's the sense in getting a raise that doesn't keep up with the pace of inflation in a sizzling economy such like this?" he questioned.

Of the strategy in going on strike Friday afternoon, Hart said it was completely up to the membership.

"They vote on it, and they decide," Hart said.

While conventional wisdom may have held that the members continue working through the Fourth of July holiday and get extra hours or holiday pay, Hart added, the members chose instead to "make a statement" to NAS.

"The workers at Arnold Air Force Base decided to go today because that extra money, while they need it, they wanted to make a statement that they're serious, and I commend them for it," he said.

As of 5 p.m. Friday, Hart said he had not heard from NAS, nor did he expect to, as it was a "slow weekend."

"It's the holiday," he said. "I'm hoping everybody gets together and enjoys their families to the best of their abilities and, hopefully, get back to the table as soon as Tuesday comes."

But, he added, the union was "ready, willing and able" to come back to the negotiating table immediately--"now, tonight, tomorrow, 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

If NAS decided to come to the table this weekend, Hart said, they would have to be "serious about coming to an agreement that serves the workers, serves the company, serves the Air Force and, by extension, the community."

As far as the anticipated effect the strike will have on the mission of AEDC, Hart said he believed the Air Force would be well-adapted to deal with change.

"I'd like to think...that they're capable of addressing all their issues to protect the mission, to protect our national security,"  he said. "There's no doubt in my mind that the Air Force is up to the challenge. It's just unfortunate that NAS is not up to the challenge of protecting the mission and NAS is not up to the challenge of protecting our national security at this time.

"Hopefully, they'll go to sleep, have a good night's rest, and they'll come back with a clearer attitude, because this was a strike that did not have to occur except for the recalcitrance of a stubborn management team."

Hart ended his statement with well wishes for "a better day soon."

NAS issued a statement earlier this afternoon, saying the work at AEDC would continue despite the strike by AEMTC members. NAS also claimed AEMTC membership did not respond to a "Last, Best and Final" offer from the company.

"NAS delivered a Last, Best, and Final offer to the AEMTC at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 30, and the AEMTC members have not yet voted on the company’s proposal," the statement said.

"NAS remains hopeful negotiations will come to a positive conclusion with a vote to ratify the new agreement by AEMTC membership," said NAS General Manager Richard Tighe, Ph.D. "In the meantime, NAS operations at AEDC will remain safe and productive. We will continue to focus on the daily priorities of safety, security, quality mission delivery and efficiency."

AEMTC is the sole bargaining agent for union affiliates and represents approximately 690 skilled workers at AEDC, according to NAS. The company further stated AEMTC members who choose to continue working during the strike should contact their supervisor or check the NAS external website for instructions.

This is a developing story. We will update it as we have more information.

Managing Editor

Erin McCullough has won awards for her news reporting, community lifestyles and education reporting in the three years she's been a journalist. She is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and currently lives in Tullahoma with her cat, Luna.

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