SPEEA adopts a new mind-set

TUKWILA — The Boeing Co.’s engineers are adapting a different mind-set — thanks to their new union director — that could be critical come contract time.

“Very often we act as if what’s good for the Boeing Co. is good for us,” said Ray Goforth, the new executive director of Boeing’s engineers union. “Our job is to advocate for our members. Where our interests diverge, we have to be willing to say that.”

Having joined the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace in February, Goforth has wasted little time in pointing out when the labor group’s interests differ from Boeing’s. With contract talks to take place this fall, Goforth has taken issue with several recent actions by Boeing that he deems “aggressive.”

Boeing and the union are set to begin negotiations on a new three-year contract in late October. SPEEA leaders already have encouraged the union’s more than 20,000 Puget Sound area members to save a recent employee incentive plan payout in case the engineers can’t reach an agreement with Boeing. SPEEA staged a 40-day strike against the aerospace firm in 2000.

A strike would come at time when Boeing will be relying on its workforce to get the delayed first 787-8 Dreamliner jet back on track. The company also hopes to deliver the first 777 Freighter as well as continue work on the 747-8 and advance other versions of the Dreamliner.

Those goals aren’t likely to happen without SPEEA, as the union alludes to with its 2008 contract slogan: “No Nerds, No Birds.”

Tanker impact on contract?

Boeing’s recent loss of a $35 billion contract supplying the U.S. Air Force with aerial refueling tankers is not thought to have much impact on negotiations. Financially, the company is doing well, having reported a $255 billion backlog in its commercial airplanes division at the end of 2007.

“Anytime we lose business it’s not good for the company or the community,” said Tim Healy, a spokesman for Boeing labor relations. However, “it remains our intent to work collaboratively with our unions.”

SPEEA’s Goforth says Boeing hasn’t collaborated with the labor group on three major issues: health care, pension plans and union representation.

Health care

The engineers and technical workers union filed a grievance with Boeing over changes to its health care programs. Goforth asserts that Boeing needs to negotiate alterations to the members’ health insurance with SPEEA. The switch, he said, undermines contract talks.

“It’s a pretty aggressive posture,” Goforth said.

Boeing’s Healy said the company has the right to adjust the plans and discussed the changes with SPEEA. The company still offers a variety of health care options, including a no contribution plan.

“All the plans provide the employees excellent health care, dental and vision care,” Healy said.

Boeing’s insurance benefits, he said, are better than what’s provided by the majority of companies in Washington state.

Retirement

Another point that could cause contention between SPEEA and Boeing during contract talks is the retirement benefit offered to employees. SPEEA’s Goforth is concerned that Boeing wants to eliminate its pension plan offering for new employees. It’s a move that could divide union members down the road if some fall under the traditional pension plan and others receive a different benefit.

“It doesn’t set a good tone as we go into contract negotiations,” he said.

Boeing’s Healy said the company is keeping an eye on its work force’s changing demographics. Far fewer Americans spend their entire career, or even significant chunks of it, with one company. Therefore, Boeing may offer a more portable retirement plan than its traditional pension.

“Many of our competitors already offer this type of plan,” Healy said. “Many of our potential employees are seeking this kind of plan.”

Union representation

SPEEA and Boeing have quarreled over representation of workers in Utah and Kansas. The company has challenged the union, having its members vote on representation. Workers in Wichita opted out of the union last June while Utah engineers voted to retain representation.

“Boeing corporate is seeking to eliminate union protection where they can,” Goforth said.

After the Utah vote, Goforth said, Boeing sought to divide the group out of the Puget Sound area bargaining unit — the unit in which it has been included since the 1960s.

Boeing says it wants to bargain a contract with SPEEA separately for the Utah members, as the National Labor Relations Board has ruled.

SPEEA and Boeing have more than six months to work out their differences before formally sitting down at the negotiating table. Both sides will have new players in the contract talks. Boeing will send its chief labor negotiator, Doug Kight, who will be in close contact with Scott Carson, president of commercial airplanes.

Goforth stepped into a role that had been open since July, when several members of SPEEA’s board ousted former director Charles Bofferding. Those members later were voted out of office in a recall petition.

The inner turmoil at SPEEA led some to speculate that Boeing may view the upheaval as a sign of weakness — a lack of unity — come contract time. Goforth believes that would be a mistake.

The new director says he wants to grow the union and already has hired someone to coordinate that effort. He also is increasing the training, educational workshops and social gatherings that SPEEA offers its members.

Most importantly, though, Goforth encourages SPEEA members and staff to keep in mind a union’s purpose: to ensure its members have a good workplace, are compensated fairly and enjoy great benefits.

“Our job isn’t to advance Boeing’s interests — it’s to advance our members’ interests,” Goforth said.

Reporter Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454 or mdunlop@heraldnet.com.

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