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Resentment lingers at BMW dealership

After a two-month strike last year allowed them to keep a union contract, albeit with fewer benefits and pay, a large group of workers at BMW of Mountain View say they are being squeezed out by their managers.

Mechanics and service writers voted 66-0 to go on strike last June at one of the last auto dealerships in the area to be unionized. Formerly owned by the Allison family, workers say the dealership's new corporate owner, AutoNation, has been trying to drive out union supporters in various ways since the strike ended. And they say their unelected union representatives at AFL-CIO Machinist's Local 1101 are slow to address an avalanche of grievances about sick pay and work/commission distribution that punishes union supporters.

Ever since the union's contract was voted in a year ago, a series of events has upset workers. For example, they say, three foremen who supported the strike were immediately demoted and replaced by less experienced mechanics. Complaints to the National Labor Relations Board about the demotions -- which came with little or no explanation -- did not lead to any resolution.

About a dozen service writers and mechanics met with the Voice in late July, saying that tensions have risen to the point that 90 percent of the dealership's workers would be willing to take some sort of dramatic action such as a "wildcat strike" -- a strike made without the approval of union leaders. They add that such measures would not be necessary if their union representatives were able to address their problems.

"Not a day goes by" without a complaint to the shop steward, said one worker, who said the union wasn't pushing for speedy resolution to the grievances.

The workers expressed anger at Local 1101 representative Jim Schwantz, and said they may petition union headquarters to have him replaced.

"If you can't do your job and your job is to protect me you need to be removed," said one worker. "It is as simple as that."

Though it's part of their new contract, the workers are still upset that service writers and mechanics must now work on commission, which they say leads to an incentive to rush through repairs and sell services that may not be necessary.

"The incentive is for us to gouge the customer," said one service writer. "That is our official job now. I've got to get them for tires, oil changes, or I'm not going to make any money."

Union blames company

In an e-mail to the Voice, Schwantz blamed AutoNation for the difficulty in resolving the disputes. He said the company has started using a Florida-based lawyer to negotiate grievances instead of local dealer management.

Schwantz pointed to what the union has been able to accomplish, despite fewer union resources and what he called AutoNation's hardball tactics.

"Shortly after returning to work, the union filed at least half a dozen grievances relating to work shifts, seniority, suspension and terminations -- all of which were resolved," Schwantz wrote. "Since the initial grievances, the union has discovered that many more contract violations have occurred. The union has filed grievances and is in the process of resolving these concerns. Most of these concerns revolve around the new pay structure in the agreement."

Marc Cannon, senior vice president of AutoNation, said he had not heard of any complaints about workers losing income, and said the company wanted to "make sure associates have opportunities to make appropriate amounts of money."

"AutoNation has been negotiating in good faith with the union and associates," he said. "It has not been brought to my attention that these issues are going on."

Cannon disagreed that the commission system leads to gouging customers. Customer satisfaction, he said, had not decreased since the changes in the union contract.

"We are trying to please the customers and make sure associates have satisfaction in their career opportunities," he said.

Comments

Posted by In the field, a resident of Waverly Park
on Aug 12, 2009 at 2:34 pm

They (auto nation) should close down. Now there is no problem. We should buy American anyway.


Posted by Old Ben, a resident of Shoreline West
on Aug 12, 2009 at 3:12 pm

The post-1990 BMWs are awful cars. Something dreadful happened to German engineering in the '90s. Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagen, they have all been producing feeble cars lately. Auto Nation sounds like a company that ought to be run out of business.


Posted by Seer, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Aug 12, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Old Ben apparently hasn't driven any german cars lately. Audi, Mercedes, and BMW make outstanding cars with quality levels equal to the Japanese but a lot more fun to drive (in general.) However, there is a measure of arrogance that goes along with the German luxury makes, especially BMW. It appears that Auto Nation is willing to go a bit farther with the arrogance and push customers a bit further into tolerating the intolerable. It can only reflect on their business. There's nothing "feeble" about these sporty cars, but apparently the people that own the dealerships have feeble senses of integrity.

I can't agree with "buy american" - way too parochial and short-sighted an approach. We're all one world now and have to think that way, instead of exporting our problems to other countries as we like to complain other countries do to us. Would you want customers in another country to reject your handiwork just because you're american? I think not.


Posted by Manny, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Aug 12, 2009 at 5:54 pm

Several models (Z4, X5, X6) of BMW are built in Spartanburg, South Carolina. If I buy one of those does that count for you as buying American?


Posted by Franky, a resident of Whisman Station
on Aug 14, 2009 at 1:53 pm

I won't be getting service or buying my next car from Autonation.


Posted by Jerry, a resident of another community
on Aug 15, 2009 at 10:35 am

Terrific reporting. When calling for service at ANY dealership, I'll be sure to as if the mechanics and service writers are "working on commission" -- and, if so, will go somewhere else.


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