Local IAM leaders: Boeing 777X offer not worth a vote

Some Machinists were outraged when they heard late Thursday afternoon that union leaders had rejected what the Boeing Co. called a “best and final counter-proposal” that would have secured production of the new 777X in metro Puget Sound.

The head of the district union said the company’s demands were too great, but several rank-and-file members said that should be their decision to make.

“My whole crew is furious we’re not even being offered the opportunity to vote on this contract,” said Randy Kennell, who works in the Everett factory.

Kennell was working in a 777 fuselage when he got a text message about the breakdown in contract talks. His co-workers’ phones started vibrating, too.

“All through the plane’s fuselage, everyone’s jaws were on the floor,” he said.

Kennell and others said they didn’t understand why union leaders rejected this offer only a month after rushing a worse one to a vote by members.

Union members rejected the previous proposal — which some described as economic blackmail at the time — by a 2-to-1 margin on Nov. 13.

Boeing’s new offer included $15,000 in signing bonuses — $5,000 more than before — and would have retained the present rate at which workers move up the pay scale. Previously, Boeing had sought to lengthen the period of time required for workers to rise to the top of the pay scale.

And Boeing would extend its promise to build the 737 MAX in Renton, from 2016 to 2024.

But Boeing stuck by a proposed change from the earlier offer: Defined pensions would be ended and 401(k)-like retirement plans would be phased in.

Company executives also demanded that union leaders recommend the offer to members, the union said. Boeing, which was first to announce the union’s rejection, did not mention that requirement. Union leaders were officially neutral on the merits of the Nov. 13 proposal.

“The price Boeing demanded was too high,” said District 751 President Tom Wroblewski of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). “Our senior leadership team could not recommend Boeing’s counter-offer.”

After a month of chill following November’s vote, suddenly this week the two parties were talking again, starting Tuesday at Boeing Commercial Airplanes headquarters in Renton.

The union proposed a contract extension on Wednesday, with neither side disclosing details. Thursday afternoon Boeing offered its counter-proposal, which IAM leaders rejected. That ended the three days of talks led by Wroblewski and Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner. The company issued a statement, and several hours later the union provided its explanation.

As the story was breaking, C.J. Fisher, who works on the 777 line, said the offer should have gone to a vote.

“What I’ve heard, I probably would’ve swung my vote the other way to yes,” he said.

Fisher is one of the roughly 32,000 machinists represented by District 751 who build all of Boeing’s commercial jetliner models in Everett, Renton and other Washington locations.

“If we’re paying our $65 a month (in union dues), why can’t we have a say?” Fisher said.

Fisher and other IAM members might yet get to vote. Very late Thursday, The Seattle Times interviewed Rich Michalski, an official of the international IAM, who “described the terms offered by Boeing management in a positive light and insisted that the members must decide the final outcome.”

“Our members are very sophisticated and smart on this matter,” Michalski told The Times. “Once we get the information on the offer to them, they will let us know. We really need to hear from our members.” It wasn’t clear under whose authority that could happen.

In the absence of a revised contract, Boeing might build the planned new 777X somewhere besides Washington. It already builds some 787s in North Charleston, S.C. Twenty-two states have submitted proposals containing incentives and other benefits, hoping to land a Boeing factory, the company said Thursday.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued a statement late Thursday, saying he would talk to both sides.

“Despite today’s setback, I remain convinced that an agreement between the Machinists and Boeing would be in the best interest of all parties — the workers, the company and Washington state,” the governor said. “We have submitted our state’s proposal and I still hope that the company will recognize that the best way to ensure that the 777X is delivered to its customers on time and at the least cost is to build it here.”

In recent weeks, Inslee, other public officials and aerospace industry insiders had worked to get the two sides to back to the bargaining table.

As Inslee works to get talks going again, Boeing will consider where to build its new airplane.

“The 777X site selection process has continued in parallel with this week’s IAM meetings,” Boeing said in Thursday’s statement. “In an overwhelmingly strong response from interested participants, Boeing has received proposals from 22 states, many of which submitted multiple sites for consideration. A total of 54 sites are now being evaluated in the next critical stage of the process.”

The company has said it will make a decision early in 2014.

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

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