New union leaders see positive change coming at Robins

wcrenshaw@macon.comOctober 16, 2013 

Robert Tidwell

WARNER ROBINS -- The coming months may show whether the current union leadership at Robins Air Force Base is largely to blame for the high number of grievances.

That’s because in less than three weeks, an entirely new slate of leaders will take over the union, with promises of a change in approach. If the number of grievances doesn’t go down, it may indicate that problems lie elsewhere.

In record turnout Tuesday, opposition candidates swept the races for all 12 offices of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 987.

Robert Tidwell, an aircraft sheet metal mechanic, defeated nine-year incumbent Tom Scott 441-310. The margin of victory was similar in the other races.

Ron Robertson, who had been vice president of maintenance for the union but didn’t seek re-election, said he expects the new leadership will make a positive difference. They will take office at the next union meeting Nov. 5.

“The people are concerned about the future of Robins Air Force Base and keeping our assets,” Robertson said. “The current administration didn’t seem to have that as one of their priorities. It was more about just filing grievances than anything else. I think the people just got tired of it.”

Robertson said Tidwell will not be a “crony” for management, as a flier distributed before the election stated. Tidwell was the person who reported the base to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration three years ago, which resulted in 39 citations.

Tidwell caught grief from both the union and management, Robertson said, but he stood his ground and it resulted in significant safety improvements.

“The whole time I was vice president of maintenance, he was a bulldog,” Robertson said. “He would sit and listen if he thought I was right, but if he thought I was wrong he wouldn’t let go of me.”

Once OSHA issued the citations, Robertson said Tidwell “worked day and night” with management to correct the problems.

“He fought management to get it fixed and then he worked with management to help take care of it,” he said. “It was never about him, it was about the base and the people.”

The day after the election, Tidwell was back at work on base and said he had about 200 congratulatory phone messages and emails to return.

He said he wants to improve relations between union and management by having better communication with workers about issues they face.

“Labor has got to get more involved in workers on that shop floor,” he said. “I know I will be down there every day. We’ve got to be more engaged with the workforce and help make the changes.”

He said following the Master Labor Agreement is key to reducing grievances.

“We all must follow the MLA, and the union and management must be held accountable to the MLA,” he said. “That will solve all our problems.”

Charles Howard, who has worked as a union steward, was elected executive vice president. Howard has helped workers filing grievances, and he also said following the Master Labor Agreement is key.

He said many grievances he dealt with could have been resolved without a grievance being filed, but the union leadership wanted him to file it.

“They were encouraging grievances,” he said.

Howard said the new union officer won’t be “in bed” with management, but will “build a bridge.”

Howard said on average, he would spend about four hours with an employee who had filed a grievance. So between him and the employee, that would be eight hours of lost time working on an aircraft. That’s a big reason, he said, that it’s important to reduce the number of grievances.

Retired Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon, who leads the 21st Century Partnership, said earlier this year that the high number of grievances at Robins compared to other depots would be bad for the base if a Base Realignment and Closure Commission comes.

McMahon took command of the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center after the OSHA citations were issued. He formed a team of management and union members to resolve the citations. Tidwell was a member of that team.

“I believe Robert Tidwell is committed to the safety and well-being of Robins workforce,” McMahon said. “I believe Robert Tidwell to be a man of his word, and if he says he’s going to work with the workforce and base leadership and with the community to improve the current environment at Robins Air Force Base, I believe him.”

Scott did not return phone calls seeking comment about the election results. He had previously expressed a desire to reduce the number of grievances, and he noted that most of them are filed by individual employees without the union’s knowledge. He also has said he didn’t believe the grievance issue would be particularly important in the event of a base closure commission.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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