Boeing, SPEEA resume talking; is there a deadline?

Negotiations between the Boeing Co. and engineers and technical workers are under way again, but the whole thing is starting to sound like a high-stakes game of chicken.

The collision point seems to be Nov. 25. Boeing says that’s the soonest members of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace could strike.

The union says that’s the soonest the company could lock workers out.

The mutually low expectations follow an overwhelming rejection of a Boeing contract offer by SPEEA members in voting that ended Monday. Engineer union members rejected the offer 9,770 to 454. Technical workers turned it down 5,327 to 154. About 72 percent of some 22,765 eligible SPEEA members voted.

On Tuesday, Boeing and SPEEA briefly resumed contract talks.

Until Monday night, when the results were announced by the union, neither side had brought up a deadline. But after the vote, the company said that on Sept. 26 SPEEA filed notice that the contracts for both professional and technical workers would be terminated at midnight Nov. 25. So what does that mean?

On Tuesday, both Boeing and SPEEA called it a procedural step.

“It allows them, if they choose, to take a strike authority vote,” said Doug Alder, Boeing spokesman.

SPEEA needed to give Boeing an end date to the contract so it could ask members to give the union’s negotiators the OK to call for a strike, Alder said. Although SPEEA negotiators now can ask for strike authority at any time, the union can’t go out on strike until 12:01 a.m. Nov. 26, the Boeing spokesman said.

If you are on SPEEA’s side, however, it apparently looks different. Boeing could lock SPEEA members out on Nov. 26 if the company chooses, said Bill Dugovich, communications director for the union.

Dugovich said he wouldn’t characterize SPEEA’s 60-day contract termination notification as a move to force negotiations to a head by Nov. 25. In SPEEA’s eyes, the union’s existing contract largely would remain in place even if an agreement is not reached by Nov. 25, Dugovich said.

On the company’s contract negotiations website, Boeing notes that there have been previous occasions in which SPEEA has given the 60-day notice that “provided a window to complete negotiations.”

Boeing’s Alder was less specific about what would happen at 12:01 a.m. Nov. 26 if the company and union have no agreement.

“We really aren’t going to speculate,” Alder said. “Our team really wants to focus on getting a deal as quickly as possible.”

SPEEA’s Dugovich said that union leaders were perplexed that Boeing had mentioned the Nov. 25 date in its message to members Monday evening.

“We think that Boeing is sending this out as an issue to deflect from the real issue, which is the stunning defeat of their contract,” Dugovich said.

Like Boeing, though, SPEEA is “focused on productive negotiations,” Dugovich said.

In talks Tuesday, Boeing agreed to preserve retiree medical benefits and some benefits for SPEEA members on active military leave.

“Boeing negotiators acknowledged the overwhelming rejection of their contract offers and modified their positions on a couple of members’ issues,” SPEEA said in a message to members.

In its own message to workers, Boeing noted that SPEEA negotiators continued to push the union’s initial list of demands, submitted June 15. The company said it’s interested in understanding SPEEA’s priorities.

“We also acknowledged that not every remaining aspect of our first proposal is a must have, but recognize that movement on the part of both parties will be necessary to reach an agreement,” Boeing negotiators wrote.

The two sides agreed to spend the rest of the week figuring out a new schedule for talks.

Michelle Dunlop: mdunlop@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3454.

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