SPEEA, Boeing and not-so-veiled threats

By Michelle Dunlop

Last year’s brouhaha involving Boeing, the Machinists and a National Labor Relations Board complaint over the company’s South Carolina facility has made Boeing and labor leaders alike hyper-vigilant about how their rhetoric comes across.

Take this year’s contract talks between Boeing and the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, for example.

Negotiators for both sides level implied threats, but neither wants to be straightforward about them for fear they’ll end up in trouble with the NLRB.

Our Thursday story about SPEEA paving the way for an NLRB-protected strike gave union leaders trouble.

The trouble lay in the last sentence (bold is for emphasis): “SPEEA could try another tactic, a concerted work slowdown, instead of a strike, Dugovich said.”

To be clear, SPEEA communications director Bill Dugovich used the phrase “work-to-rule” to describe the tactic, not “work slowdown.” But a “work-to-rule” campaign involves union workers completing tasks by the book, which ideally means it takes longer to do the same work because, for example, they refuse voluntary overtime. So what is a “work-to-rule” campaign? A work slowdown.

SPEEA leaders are also being careful not to explicitly threaten a strike. In their latest update to members, about talks Thursday, the union said: “Using every available strategy, our negotiating teams are confident we will achieve your goals in these negotiations.”

One such strategy was having members overwhelmingly vote down a Boeing contract offer. Asking members to give negotiators the power to call a strike, a logical next step, is another tactic the union has called “an important leverage point.” And SPEEA has employed a work slowdown — OK, “work-to-rule” — elsewhere, as it did at a Boeing plant in Kansas.

Boeing leaders are just as touchy about how thinly veiled threats are characterized.

Mike Delaney, vice president of engineering for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, has repeatedly implied that engineering work in the Puget Sound region is at stake in these negotiations — that such work could be done elsewhere at less cost. Boeing’s P.R. machine has been aggressive in challenging any news story, including some of ours, that quotes executives as having said the company will move work out of the region if the SPEEA contract is too costly, making clear that the official stance, regardless of what was said in an interview, is that Boeing merely could do so.

Like the difference between a work slowdown and “work-to-rule,” that’s a distinction only a lawyer could perceive.