Nearly 600 union workers at the United Launch Alliance — the US government’s primary rocket launch provider — went on strike on May 6th, just a day after the company launched a lander to Mars for NASA.
The employees are part of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), and they’re responsible for assembling, testing, and helping to launch ULA’s rockets. They voted to go on strike after rejecting ULA’s final offer on a three-year contract that would have gone into effect on May 6th. Negotiations have been ongoing since April 16th.
The protesting workers are located at three of ULA’s main manufacturing and integration sites. That includes Decatur, Alabama, where the bulk of rocket manufacturing takes place, as well as Cape Canaveral, Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California — ULA’s two launch locations. Picketing lines have already sprung up along the gates to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. While this strike is happening, ULA will need to find another way to get its rockets made and up into space.
An IAMAW representative says that the ULA employees have two main issues with the contract ULA proposed. One involves stipulations on travel between the two launch sites. ULA doesn’t launch out of Vandenberg very often, so the company maintains just a small workforce over there. So whenever there is a Vandenberg launch, employees from Florida are called to travel to Vandenberg to help with mission operations. Originally, employees only had to be in California for 30 days at a time and were then rotated out if needed.
However, IAMAW claims the new contract would allow ULA to call Florida employees back to Vandenberg after they had already returned home from a 30-day stint. “If you come back, they can send you back again,” Johnny Walker, a representative for IAMAW in Cape Canaveral, Florida, tells The Verge. “The family life is gone, and you can’t say no.”
Additionally, IAMAW says the contract gives ULA the option to sub-contract any job that it wants, meaning a full-time employee’s work could be given to an outside company at any time. The union sees that as ULA’s attempt to reduce the size of its workforce and pay lower wages. “Our guys have certification beyond belief,” says Walker. “We have a perfect record for launching rockets. We never have lost a rocket or had a failure. We were part of it being successful, and now they’re turning it around and treating us like dirt.”
ULA has not responded to these specific issues, but did release the following statement about the strike: “We’re disappointed that the IAM members rejected ULA’s last, best, and final offer and voted to strike,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s CEO. “We believe our proposed contract is very competitive with other companies. Importantly, ULA’s final offer contributes to ULA’s long term viability in an increasingly competitive launch business environment.”
In the meantime, ULA said it would be “implementing its strike contingency plans,” though the company did not explain what those would be. The company is focused on meeting all of its obligations to its customers, according to the statement. ULA’s closest upcoming mission is the launch of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, a spacecraft that will travel closer to the Sun than any previous vehicle to study its outer atmosphere. The probe is slated to launch at the end of July on top of ULA’s Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It’s unclear if the strike will affect that mission, though there’s still plenty of time to find a resolution.