IAM counting ballots after day of voting on 777X

By Dan Catchpole Herald Writer

SEATTLE — Thousands of Machinists union members waited in line for up to two hours on a chilly Friday at union halls in Everett, Seattle, Renton, Auburn and Puyallup to vote on whether to accept or reject a contract proposal from the Boeing Co. that would cut benefits in exchange for a promise to build and assemble the new 777X airplane in metro Puget Sound.

So many turned out that voting continued well past the 6 p.m. closing time in Everett. And late Friday night union officials were still counting ballots.

Results were to be announced at the Seattle headquarters of District 751 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). But an estimated 9 p.m. announcement became 9:30, then 10.

District 751 represents about 31,000 Boeing workers in Washington and about 2,000 in Oregon and Kansas.

Many workers said the vote is about jobs — either voting yes to keep jobs here or voting no to protect benefits far above industry standards.

Those voting no said they think Boeing is bluffing — that it has to build the 777X in Everett. The company has largely stayed quiet during the process, but early on it said it needs to cut costs to remain competitive in the future and that building the 777X elsewhere might be an answer.

“Boeing hasn’t explained why it needs to cut costs,” said Jeremy Markley, a mechanic on the 777 line in Everett, while waiting in line to vote.

After Machinists turned down a previous contract offer in November, the company began a high-profile nationwide search to find a cheap location for making the jetliner. Washington and 21 other states have submitted proposals.

Last month, Washington lawmakers passed Boeing-friendly legislation with tax breaks worth $8.7 billion. But Boeing said that without a revised contract with the IAM, it still was inclined to look elsewhere.

The two sides resumed talks last month. Local union leaders rejected Boeing’s “best and final” offer, but Tom Buffenbarger, the international president of IAM, forced District 751 to put it to a vote.

Boeing’s offer would replace the current contract that ends in 2016 and wouldn’t expire until 2024.

It would radically change retirement benefits from a defined pension plan to a defined contribution plan. Workers would keep whatever they had earned in a pension, but under the new terms, earned retirement benefits would go to defined contribution plans such as 401(k)s.

The offer also would increase how much employees have to pay for medical insurance, though it also improves dental coverage.

And Boeing’s offer includes two lump-sum payments — one at the beginning of the contract and a second in 2020 — worth a combined $15,000.

Most significant, if Machinists approve the contract, Boeing promises to continue building the 737 MAX in Renton, to site 777X wing production in metro Puget Sound and final assembly of the new airplane in Everett.

The 777X is a planned new variant of the venerable widebody that has been built at Paine Field in Everett for almost 20 years.

The composite wing technology will be “the pivot point for Boeing to be successful in coming years,” said Bob Drewel, head of the Washington Aerospace Partnership and former Snohomish County executive.

Losing that experience could make Washington less competitive for future commercial airplane production, he said.

Also, if Boeing begins shifting away from the state, many of its suppliers could leave as well, Drewel said. “If your customer moves away, it follows that you might move with it to keep costs down.”

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com.