SPEEA doesn’t expect much from Boeing

Frustration, finger-pointing and few results.

That characterizes contract talks between the Boeing Co. and the union representing the company’s 22,765 engineers and technical workers in the Puget Sound region. And things don’t look likely to improve Tuesday, when the company is expected to present a second full contract offer to the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace.

“Indications are this offer is only marginally improved from the offer members overwhelmingly rejected last month,” union leaders wrote in a message to members Monday.

Boeing leaders have said that making a deal means both sides have to give something, insinuating that SPEEA isn’t willing to compromise. The company’s negotiators are “very motivated,” Doug Alder, a Boeing spokesman, said on Thursday. Last week, though, the company and union were again at odds over when their next negotiating session was scheduled.

The continued friction comes as a vague deadline looms: Nov. 25, when the union has asked for its contract to be terminated. After that date, SPEEA could strike, though union leaders have yet to ask members to vote to authorize one. SPEEA has held only one significant strike, of 40 days in 2000.

Both Boeing and SPEEA leaders say they’ll keep negotiating after the Nov. 25 deadline. But union leaders already are encouraging members to act — calling for a boycott of voluntary overtime and suggesting members follow work procedures to the letter, a strategy that slows the pace.

“It is becoming clear Boeing corporate may need additional persuasion,” SPEEA leaders wrote on Monday.

When Boeing and SPEEA leaders sit down, more than 16 months will have passed since the two informally began discussing a new labor contract. Seven weeks will have gone by since SPEEA members voted down Boeing’s initial contract.

So what’s the holdup?

Boeing sees both pension and health-care costs rising. The company managed to pass along some health-care costs to members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in that union’s new contract, inked late last year. And there’s “no question” the company would like to do the same with SPEEA, said Scott Hamilton, a local analyst with Issaquah-based Leeham Co.

But “Boeing is absolutely adamant that they need to make changes to the pension fund,” Hamilton said.

The jet maker wants to put incoming workers on a 401(k) plan, rather than the defined pension that SPEEA members have. While the union says it’s willing to discuss the idea, it only wants to do so if workers receive the same amount of money as they would in a pension plan.

Boeing is trying to sell these unpopular ideas to SPEEA at time when the company is expected to boost its dividend to shareholders by as much as 9.1 percent, according to a Bloomberg News report. The company’s emphasis on stock buybacks also is seen as a move that benefits executives and large shareholders, not workers, Hamilton said.

There’s no doubt Boeing needs its engineers. The company’s still doing design work for the 787-9 and the KC-46 tanker. It has more than 900 orders for the 737 MAX. And customers already are lining up to buy two derivatives that the jet maker has yet to launch: the 787-10 and the 777X.

A Boeing spokesman previously told The Herald that the company has enough engineers in the Puget Sound region to handle all of the company’s upcoming development projects. However, that’s not what Hamilton thinks. Based on conversations with customers, Boeing’s engineering resources are strained, making committing to projects like the 777X challenging, he said.

With the company’s need for engineers in mind, Hamilton wonders: “Why in the world is Boeing being so pig-headed about some of these issues, other than that Boeing (corporate) hates unions?”

During an earnings call last month, Boeing CEO Jim McNerney said the company works “effectively” with its unionized workers. But McNerney didn’t think that workers at the company’s South Carolina site need union representation. The Machinists recently made contact with Boeing workers there.

Boeing’s North Charleston workers “decided at the outset that they didn’t want or need the union as an intermediary between them, and they don’t need a union now,” Jack Jones, vice president of Boeing South Carolina, wrote in an op-ed that appeared in Sunday’s Post and Courier in Charleston.

Jones promised that the company’s South Carolina workers would receive “more and more opportunities” as long as the North Charleston site remains competitive.

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

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