Timken workers approve four-year contract

By JOE MILICIA, Associated Press Writer

CANTON, Ohio (AP) - Workers at Timken Co. approved a four-year contract Thursday that would save half the jobs at three plants the company said it would close.

Members of the United Steelworkers of America Local 1123 voted 1,643 to 737 to ratify the proposed deal, which goes into effect when the current contract expires Sept. 26. Union officials said 85 percent of its eligible membership voted.

"We are very pleased at the outcome of the vote," Timken spokeswoman Denise Bowler said. "We think it benefits out employees, the company, our customers and the Canton community."

The planned closings became a hot political topic during last year's presidential campaign because the steel and bearings maker is run by prominent President Bush backer William Robert "Tim" Timken Jr., who is resigning to become the U.S. ambassador to Germany.

Workers voted at the Canton Civic Center on the contract covering 2,700 workers in northeast Ohio after rejecting a previous offer. Some union members criticized the proposed contract for raising health care costs and not improving pension benefits.

Kevin McKinney, a steelworker of 17 years, stood outside the civic center wearing a homemade sandwich board that read "We can't afford to say yes" on the front along with a photo of his family of four. On the back read, "This is the thanks we get for breaking production records."

A previous contract offer was rejected in June, 1,129 to 895. It would have required workers to annually pay a share of health care benefits of $1,000 for an individual and $2,000 for a family. Those figures were reduced to $500 and $1,000 for the proposal approved Thursday. Currently, workers pay nothing for health care.

The contract also guarantees a minimum of 500 jobs will be retained at three plants in the company's bearings division where about 1,000 are currently employed.

Steel worker Bob Harper, who voted against the contract, said there's a division in the union between the company's steel and bearings workers because the proposal does more for bearings workers. He questioned whether transfer language in the contract would allow bearings workers to take the jobs of steel workers with less seniority.

Bearings employee Tom Andrews called the proposal a fair deal.

"The idea is they're settling for a little less to help the bearings guys," Andrews said. "The more people employed the better."

The contract includes raises of 3 percent a year on average pay of $18.50 an hour and promises from Timken to invest millions of dollars in Ohio operations and job security.

McKinney and other workers said at a time when Timken's business is booming, they should get better raises and not have to contribute to health care.

Helped by strong demand, Timken earned $67.3 million in the second quarter ended June 30, up from $25.3 million a year ago.

"Timken's making millions in profit and they're telling us we have to make a concession," Harper said. "What if we're in an economic slide? How much are we going to have to give up then?"

David Beadnell, a bearings employee of 26 years held his 4-year-old grandson Cameron's hand as he left the voting location, and said he hoped the contract would pass this time.

"What we get, people should be satisfied, but everybody wants more," Beadnell said. "I've told those young guys if they think Timken has to stay here, they're foolish."

Timken employs about 26,000 people and has operations in 27 countries.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)