JEFFERSONVILLE — Disputes stemming from potential cuts to healthcare benefits have created a rift between UPS and its aircraft mechanics.

On Monday, nearly 100 of the company's aircraft mechanics from around the country lined sections of Ind. 62 near the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Jeffersonville with picket signs.

Tim Boyle, president of Teamsters Local 2727, which represents the approximately 1,200 aircraft maintenance workers employed by UPS, said he is concerned about healthcare cuts to both active and retired workers.

"With the retiree medical, right now the cost would increase about $19,000 per year for our members, which would basically make it unaffordable," Boyle said. "What they've offered is ridiculous, and we just couldn't accept it. As far as the active medical, we just want to maintain what we've got. We've got a good plan. Our members have worked hard to build the airline. When you have the CEO and his boys up there getting 21 percent raises, there's absolutely no reason why we should ever take any concessions, and we're not going to."

Monday's demonstration was just one in a long string of recent protests organized by the workers, with additional protests expected to be held in Louisville and Rockford, Ill., next week.

Over the past week, Boyle said members have traveled more than 2,000 miles for protests. Stops have included Atlanta, site of the UPS headquarters, and Wilmington, Del., for the company's annual shareholder meeting.

At the meeting, a letter signed by roughly 930 aircraft maintenance workers outlining their concerns was given to CEO David Abney.

"I delivered that message personally to Mr. Abney at the shareholder meeting last Thursday," Boyle said. "We made it very clear that with them getting their 21 percent raises, all we want to do is to keep what we have, and our members aren't going to back down."

In a statement responding to the protests, Mike Mangeot, UPS Airlines strategic communications director, said the company is working to find a compromise that will satisfy both sides.

"UPS continues to negotiate in good faith for a win-win contract," Mangeot said. "This union activity is simply routine posturing aimed at influencing talks. The reality is, negotiations continue under the control of the National Mediation Board, with dates scheduled for several months to come. We remain confident that we will reach a mutually favorable agreement, just as we have in all previous mechanic negotiations."

Boyle, however, said he is not as confident that an agreement will be reached, since the dispute has continued for three years now.

According to Boyle, negotiations became stagnant in February 2016. Union members responded last November by voting to authorize a strike if no progress was made.

When the two parties went back to mediation in January, Boyle said "it was obvious the company was still not willing to progress and work with" the workers, which prompted the union to submit a request to the National Mediation Board for a release in order to strike.

On Thursday and Friday, both sides will meet once again at the request of mediators to attempt to find a resolution.

"We don't expect much," Boyle said. "UPS hasn't given us any indication that there is going to be any progress. If we go back to the table and it's the same lip service, we're going to go back to the mediation board and make our case that the company isn't negotiating in good faith and to release us. We've gone as far as we can."

The possibility of a strike, according to Boyle, is why Amazon was chosen as the location for Monday's protest. UPS currently provides delivery services for roughly 30 percent of Amazon's packages.

"The reason we're out here in front of Amazon is just to make sure they know that there's a good possibility we're going to be going on strike, and they should consider other sources for their shipping," Boyle said.

Bob Mussell, safety chairman of Teamsters Local 2727, has worked in aircraft maintenance for UPS in Louisville for 10 years. He said that he and other protesters aren't asking for any improvements to healthcare plans, but to simply keep what is already in place.

"We've got great insurance," Mussell said. "We don't want to see it go away. We've got to keep our healthcare, because it's one of those things we truly need to have. We've been trying to do this for the better part of three years. The company has record profits. The company makes billions of dollars. We just want to keep what we have."

Mussell said aircraft maintenance is a dangerous profession that poses many potential risks to workers. On Monday, Mussell picketed with one of his arms in a cast due to a work-related incident that resulted in a torn bicep tendon in February.

"This is part of the injuries that occur to our union group," Mussell said. "We've got people with back and shoulder problems just because we work over our heads constantly. We're dealing with conditions outside during the winter with ice. It's just a hazardous profession."

Mark Sherard, who has worked for UPS as an aircraft mechanic for 23 years, said the nature of his work has resulted in multiple injuries.

"I had surgery in my neck about 12 years ago," Sherard said. "Maybe three years ago, I had my lower back go out with bulging disks. There are several individuals that have had other issues with different physical ailments that you don't normally find in another trade."

Other potential workplace hazards mentioned by Sherard were the chemicals used during aircraft maintenance.

"There's a lot of hydraulic fluid, engine fuel, synthetic engine oil and lubricants we use on the aircrafts," Sherard said. "We have protective equipment we use, but you can't always protect yourself from everything. Over a period of time, those substances will take an effect on you."

Because of the physical and chemical risks associated with aircraft maintenance, Sherard said it's crucial for workers to be provided with quality healthcare benefits, especially since many in the field are getting older.

"Now, the average age of a mechanic is 54 years old," Sherard said. "Out of a few thousand mechanics, there's a lot of them that are starting to get to the point where they need this healthcare. It's not a want. It's a need. I used to think as a young kid that health benefits weren't too big of a deal. The more you go through life, the more you realize — especially if you have a family — not having them could wipe you out in a heartbeat."

The combination of these factors have caused Sherard and his fellow workers to do whatever it takes to make sure they continue to receive the same level of healthcare to which they have become accustomed.

"We're going to need that healthcare now more than ever," Sherard said. "That being the case, it's time to get out here and let everybody know. This is just an informational picket right now, but it will go to strike if it goes to that. It's that important."

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