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Union, Oak Harbor Freight Lines end 5-month strike

Union workers picketed outside Oak Harbor Freight Lines headquarters for five months. The streets were quiet Friday as the Auburn-based freight company and the union agreed to end the strike. - Gary Kissel/Reporter
Union workers picketed outside Oak Harbor Freight Lines headquarters for five months. The streets were quiet Friday as the Auburn-based freight company and the union agreed to end the strike.
— image credit: Gary Kissel/Reporter

A long and emotional strike between Oak Harbor Freight Lines Inc. and its union workforce is over – for now.

Teamster representatives and company leaders agreed to end the five-month strike. That conclusion became official this week.

Administrative employees returned to work today. Other union workers, especially freight-moving personnel, were expected to return to the jobs as soon as they cleared mandatory drug-testing and other screenings, according to company spokesman Mike Hobby.

Teamsters shut down their picket lines in front of the company’s headquarters and their freight yard along West Valley Highway and 37th Street Northwest.

Teamsters two weeks ago said they would end the strike unconditionally, but were in the process of clarifying benefits and discipline questions before returning to work. The company, in turn, agreed to unconditionally accept them back on the job.

Not all workers will return to jobs, however. While Hobby did not disclose numbers, some employees will be laid off because of the effects of the strike and a failing economy.

The union representing nearly 600 workers had been on strike since Sept. 22. The strike idled 578 drivers, dock workers, office workers and mechanics – about 40 percent of the Auburn-based company's workforce. Since then, about 136 union-represented workers crossed picket lines and returned to work in the three Pacific Northwest states.

Both sides said there were no winners during the grueling and contentious strike. The impasse cost jobs, livelihoods and for a family-owned company, considerable profits in a sour economy.

"There's no winners here," admitted Al Hobart, vice president of the Western Regional of the Teamsters International Union. "This was the most difficult (strike) I've been involved with in 34 years. When people are losing homes and cars and the company is losing business ... it's difficult. And you don't get that back overnight in the best conditions.

"It's a no-win (situation), but we have to try to maintain the standards and go forward.

Hobby added: "I don't believe anyone benefited."

Hobart, however, cautioned there are more hurdles to clear. The union has yet to negotiate a new contract with the company.

Drivers from Washington, Oregon and Idaho went on strike over what the Teamsters described as the company's unfair labor practices in negotiating a new deal. The Teamsters' labor contract expired Oct. 31, 2007, and negotiations since have failed to resolve disagreements about the company's proposed health-care plan, according to both sides.

Hobart said the union's move to end the strike is a gesture to put aside differences and bring both parties back to the table to iron out a new deal. But benefits and seniority issues still need to be resolved, Hobart said.

"We're going back to work, but the dispute is still not over. I want to make that clear," Hobart said.

If a new contract cannot be reached, another strike could loom.

Added Hobby: "Unfortunately we don't have a contract, so there is some instability there. But Oak Harbor is relieved it has ended.

"We will focus on bringing business back and make Oak Harbor stronger."

At the core of the strike was the union's claim of the company's unfair labor practices. But of those claims, the company settled on three charges, while one charge was withdrawn and another dismissed.

The company agreed to resolve the unfair labor practices, and the National Labor Review Board confirmed strikers were entitled to return to their jobs.

Hobby said union and non-union workers can keep abreast of information by visiting the company's question-and-answer online outlet at www.oakhanswers.com.

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