Boeing seeks federal mediation in SPEEA talks

A federal mediator has been asked to wade into the mud- slinging between the Boeing Co. and the union representing engineers and technical workers after contract talks broke down Thursday.

Leaders of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace expressed bewilderment after company officials broke off talks and requested mediation. The move came after months of negotiations and an Oct. 1 rejection by SPEEA members of Boeing’s first contract offer.

“We hope the expertise of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service can help move the two sides toward a resolution,” Boeing negotiators wrote in a message to employees.

A spokesman for the federal service couldn’t comment on the matter Thursday. However, both sides said they had spoken with the mediation service.

In separate interviews, the company and union accused one another of being inflexible. Both concede, however, that federal mediation in contract negotiations is fairly common. A mediator sat in on talks between SPEEA and Boeing in 2008.

The union doesn’t object to mediation but had been prepared to continue negotiating without third-party help, said Ray Goforth, SPEEA’s executive director.

During the Thursday meeting, Boeing rejected a SPEEA counterproposal on pensions and wages, which included 6 percent annual raises over three years, Goforth said.

The biggest obstacle in negotiations has been the “absurd expectations” of Boeing officials on compensation and benefits, Goforth said.

In a message to employees, Boeing negotiators said that SPEEA’s latest proposal would push compensation for its 22,765 Puget Sound area engineers and technical workers “above market” for the region. Throughout negotiations, Boeing has emphasized a need to stay competitive in the Puget Sound region. The company noted Thursday that its compensation package “already leads the market.”

The company’s latest offer was 3 percent to 4.5 percent annual wage-pool increases over four years, an improvement over the 2 percent to 3.5 percent in Boeing’s first proposal.

Frustration over the talks has been building and was apparent again in Thursday’s meeting, said Doug Alder, a Boeing spokesman. That led the company to request mediation. “We feel like this is our next best option,” Alder said.

It’s unclear if mediation will avert a strike by the engineers and technical workers who design, test and sign off on deliveries of Boeing jets.

Union officials previously indicated that they could ask members for the authority to call a strike by year’s end. But Goforth suggested Thursday that won’t likely happen until the new year. He wasn’t certain how mediation would influence a strike-authorization vote.

SPEEA has staged only one significant strike in its history: a 40-day work stoppage in 2000. A strike in 2013 would come as Boeing increases aircraft production and works on several design projects, such as the 767-based Air Force aerial-refueling tanker, the revamped 737 MAX and a larger version of the popular 787.

Herald reporter Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454 or mdunlop@heraldnet.com.

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