Local IAM leaders dig in: No Boeing 777X vote

Just about everyone, it seems, thinks Machinists union members should vote on a Boeing Co. contract proposal.

The national leaders of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) in Maryland think it should go to a vote.

The governor of Washington, the executive of Snohomish County, the mayor of Everett and a member of Congress think it should go to a vote. After weeks of feigned neutrality, some of those politicians even say that vote should be yes.

And if emails and phone calls to reporters and buzz on the Internet are indicators, many if not most of the 32,000 members of IAM District 751 want to vote.

There’s at least one guy who doesn’t think it should go to a vote. In fact, District 751 President Tom Wroblewski doesn’t think there’s a valid contract to vote on. And in any event, he says, the offer is not worthy.

At issue is an eight-year contract extension Boeing proposed to the union on Thursday. If approved, it would ensure that final assembly of the company’s new 777X would be in Everett and that the world’s biggest commercial carbon-fiber-composite wings would be fabricated in metro Puget Sound.

“We couldn’t go onto the shop floor to ask you to accept this proposal,” Wroblewski wrote in an email to union members early Friday. “Despite what Boeing is saying, the offer was almost identical to the one you rejected” in November.

That depends on the definition of “almost.”

True, Boeing still is seeking to phase out a traditional defined pension and phase in 401(k)-type retirement plans.

But the company has abandoned language requiring more years of service to reach the top of the pay scale, has increased lump sum signing bonuses to $15,000 and says it now is willing to extend its promise to build the 737 MAX in Renton to 2024.

Dennis Westlake, 34, has worked at Boeing for three years, doing interior fabrication and installation on the 777 line in Everett. He thinks union leaders should not only allow a vote, “I think they should have recommended a yes vote.”

“I voted no on the last one,” Westlake said, “but I would have voted yes on this one.”

Many younger union members who have contacted The Herald say that scrapping a traditional pension for a contribution retirement plan isn’t a show-stopper. They share a widespread view that defined pensions are relics of a bygone era.

Many Machinists, of course, think it’s folly to phase out the pension and make other concessions, like paying more for health care. Those benefits were won over decades through tough bargaining and occasional strikes.

But why not vote on it?

It’s complicated.

Machinists voted down, by 2-to-1, Boeing’s surprising first contract-extension proposal on Nov. 13. The company then said it had no plans to talk again until nearer the expiration of the current contract in 2016. The union said it was willing to talk but seemed resigned to waiting until then, too.

But as the company solicited bids of economic incentives to build the new 777X somewhere other than Washington, political and business leaders here quietly urged the two sides to get together. And on Tuesday, suddenly they did.

On Wednesday, the union made a proposal to Boeing, but didn’t disclose details.

On Thursday, Boeing came back with a counter-proposal. In a written statement at the end of the day, the company said the union had rejected that offer on the spot.

A few long hours later, the union issued its own statement, saying the proposal wasn’t very good and came with a stipulation: Union leaders had to refer it to the membership with a recommendation to vote yes.

“When I said we couldn’t do that, Boeing withdrew the offer immediately,” Wroblewski said in his email.

When asked about the stipulation, Boeing spokesman Doug Alder wrote in an email:

“We aren’t commenting or clarifying beyond this statement: The union leadership rejected Boeing’s best and final counterproposal. Boeing did not withdraw its counterproposal, nor was there any need to do so, because the counterproposal was rejected.”

It’s possible both accounts of the debacle are correct.

IAM District 751 leaders late Friday were showing no signs of budging on the question of putting the proposal before members. In fact, they posted a detailed analysis of the Boeing offer on the union’s website.

Wroblewski wrote: “I think you’ll agree with us that Boeing’s demands for concessions on retirement and health benefits — plus limits on future wages — were unreasonable, especially considering how we have delivered record numbers of airplanes and record profit margins this year. And, if you compare the two latest offers, you’ll see that the only real difference between November’s offer and the more-recent one is that Boeing proposed to take away just a fraction less.”

Boeing, meanwhile, is reviewing incentive proposals from 22 states hoping to land the 777X factory, including Washington. Last month state lawmakers approved a package of tax breaks worth $8.7 billion.

“Jim McNerney already hates the union, and he’s not that fond of Washington state,” said Scott Hamilton, an aerospace analyst in Issaquah. He was referring, of course, to Boeing’s CEO in Chicago.

“Absent a long-term agreement with IAM on his terms, he’s moving this plane out of Washington,” Hamilton said. “Why do IAM members think he’s bluffing? We’ve seen this movie before, guys.”

If that movie existed, it would be a documentary titled, “Boeing Puts a 787 Assembly Line in South Carolina.”

On Friday, as if following a script, Boeing issued a real-life news release with the headline, “Boeing Plans South Carolina Expansion Activities.”

Chuck Taylor: 425-339-3429; ctaylor@heraldnet.com. Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com.

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