By Dan Catchpole Herald Writer
National leaders of the Machinists union are overriding local union leaders to force a vote in early January on the latest contract proposal from the Boeing Co.
If union members approve it, the offer would cut existing benefits but guarantee production of Boeing’s new 777X airplane in and near Everett.
The local union, District 751, posted a statement on its website Saturday “adamantly recommending members reject this offer.” Previously, District 751 President Tom Wroblewski said he turned down the offer last week because it is too similar to one rejected by rank-and-file members last month by a 2-to-1 margin.
Wroblewski has pressed Tom Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, for a written explanation of his decision to force the vote.
The vote’s timing will make it harder for local union leaders to rally opposition to approving the contract as Boeing shuts down between Christmas and the New Year. Many workers will be out on vacation when the vote occurs.
One rank-and-file leader, Wilson “Fergie” Ferguson called the timing “dastardly.”
IAM leaders are “taking advantage of us at our weakest,” he said. “This is not about democracy, this is about forcing their agenda.”
Ferguson and others openly criticized Wroblewski in November for allowing a vote on Boeing’s first contract proposal, which came out of secret negotiations which involved mostly national — and few local — union representatives.
“Now that he’s back, he has my full support,” Ferguson said.
IAM spokesman Frank Larkin said Buffenbarger’s main concern is to ensure members have the final say on Boeing’s offer, which it made as a counter-proposal during negotiations last week.
The IAM constitution gives wide discretion to Buffenbarger to override local leadership.
However, this battle pits him against one of the largest and strongest locals in the IAM.
Many aerospace industry observers have speculated in private conversations why the national IAM leaders seem willing to push concessions on District 751 members. But none has answers.
Approval of the contract would mean more than 10 years of uninterrupted union dues and no threat to the IAM strike fund, Ferguson said.
The eight-year contract would go into effect after the current one ends in 2016. It improved on the earlier offer by keeping the current schedule at which workers move up the pay scale, adding a $5,000 cash payment in 2020 on top of the $10,000 signing bonus and promising to keep 737 MAX production in Renton to 2024.
But the proposal still includes many concessions, including replacing the traditional defined pension plan and phasing in 401(k)-type retirement plans.
A company spokesman said the terms still stand but declined further comment on Saturday.
When Boeing first offered those terms last week, it also said union leaders had to recommend a yes vote to members.
That stipulation and the pension takeaway were going too far, Wroblewski said after rejecting the offer.
Some union members said they were outraged that Boeing would pressure workers to cut benefits, claiming that it needs to cut labor costs, without any similar concessions from executives and when the company is posting huge profits and sitting on massive amounts of cash.
But with Boeing threatening to move jobs out of state, many of District 751’s roughly 31,000 members working at Boeing, especially younger ones, said they would vote yes, and that the loss of a pension wasn’t a show-stopper for them. It isn’t clear that a majority of members want a vote, let alone if a majority would approve the offer.
A handful of them marched Wednesday on the Everett union hall, demanding a contract vote.
“This is a high-stakes poker game, and I don’t know if I’m comfortable calling Boeing’s bluff,” march organizer Paul Fritzler said.
High-profile politicians, including Gov. Jay Inslee, have been calling for a vote, too.
Boeing upped the ante after the Machinists rejected its initial contract offer in November by beginning a much-publicized national search for 777X production sites. It received bids from 22 states for 54 sites.
This week the company narrowed its list and started notifying states that had been eliminated. A Boeing spokesman said it doesn’t have any plan to publicly announce the short list. North Carolina and Pennsylvania have been cut, according to local news reports.
On Friday, Alex Pietsch, the top aerospace adviser for Inslee, said Washington has not heard from Boeing if it is in or out of the running for the 777X.