Outcome of Boeing-SPEEA dispute could have major implications

EVERETT — Two.

That many engineers are at the heart of a labor dispute that could have big implications for the Boeing Co.’s plan to move engineering work from metro Puget Sound — and away from union shops. If Boeing loses, job migration could become much more costly.

Late last year, two engineers with Boeing Flight Services in Miami voted to join the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, the union that represents more than 25,000 workers at Boeing and other companies.

They voted in a self-determination election, which allows employees to join an existing collective bargaining unit. That means the employees don’t have to negotiate an entirely new contract. The process is also called an Armour-Globe election, a reference to case law that established the legal doctrine.

An Armour-Globe election can “streamline organizing,” said Ray Goforth, SPEEA’s executive director.

After the Miami vote, though, contract negotiations between Boeing and SPEEA earlier this year reached an impasse.

SPEEA argued that most of the existing contract terms for metro Puget Sound employees should simply be extended to the two engineers in Miami.

Boeing argued that many contract terms should be renegotiated for the Miami engineers because of geographic differences between Florida and Washington.

In early May, both sides filed unfair labor practice charges with federal regulators, each accusing the other of not negotiating in good faith. The charges are still under investigation by the National Labor Relations Board.

These types of charges are somewhat subjective and hinge “on whether the two sides are really attempting to reach an agreement, or whether one side is stonewalling,” said Charlotte Garden, a labor expert and law professor at Seattle University.

Boeing “made multiple offers during the process,” the company said in a written statement responding to The Herald. “The law clearly requires SPEEA to bargain over these newly added employees’ terms of employment, but SPEEA has made no attempt to reach an agreement with the company.”

If Boeing wins, SPEEA would have to use far more resources to organize and negotiate on behalf of small bargaining units across the country.

“It makes no sense economically to have a separate contract for two guys in Miami,” Goforth said.

But if the union wins, it becomes much easier and less costly to organize workers outside metro Puget Sound.

That means SPEEA has a better chance of re-unionizing the more than 4,000 engineering jobs that Boeing has moved, or plans to move, out of Washington.

The moves began last year when the Chicago-based company announced it was establishing “centers of excellence” to handle various engineering work. Boeing has said that the plan is a business decision to tap new sources of talent, and not a strategy to weaken SPEEA’s negotiating position or cut labor costs.

Many aerospace analysts scoffed at that rationale following Boeing’s announcement in April that it is moving 1,100 jobs out of state.

The company’s strategy is primarily driven by cost-cutting calculations that project $100 million in savings each year, according to a Seattle Times report about internal Boeing documents.

The documents indicated that some Boeing managers received training in identifying and discouraging organizing campaigns in non-union shops, The Times reported.

Getting employees to vote for unionizing is a much easier sell when labor organizers can show them an existing contract and say those are the terms you will get, Goforth said.

So a SPEEA win in Miami could decrease the savings Boeing hopes to collect from moving engineering work.

“If their motivation is to run away from the union, it should change the calculations,” Goforth said.

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

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