SPEEA lays groundwork for ‘federally protected’ strike

By Michelle Dunlop Herald Writer

More than two weeks have passed since Puget Sound-area engineers and technical workers voted to reject a Boeing Co. contract offer. There has been little negotiation since, and there are signs their union is very quietly laying the groundwork to enable a strike during which the company cannot, by law, replace them.

Since the Oct. 1 rejection, negotiators for the company and the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, which represents 22,765 union workers in the region, about half of whom work in Everett, have met only twice, for less than three hours in all.

Earlier this week, SPEEA leaders told members that “little progress” had been made since the two sides resumed talking on Oct. 2. Boeing and SPEEA were scheduled to meet again today.

Meanwhile, the union has filed formal complaints against the jet maker with the federal government, alleging unfair practices in the company’s relationship with SPEEA.

The lack of progress and SPEEA’s labor complaints have union members wondering if they are headed for a strike. In a document on SPEEA’s website, the union answers members’ questions about a potential strike but notes that there are “strategic reasons” for not answering all of them in writing. When it comes to anticipating the worst, SPEEA encourages members to talk to those who participated in the union’s 40-day strike against Boeing in 2000.

“SPEEA is focused on negotiating a contract and avoiding a strike,” union leaders wrote.

That said, in filing labor complaints against the company, SPEEA is setting the stage for what is known as a federally protected strike, should union leaders choose to call for one.

On Oct. 5, just days after SPEEA members voted 15,097 to 608 to reject Boeing’s contract offer, the union filed two complaints against the jet maker with the National Labor Relations Board. Union leaders accused Boeing of video-recording SPEEA members at rallies and confiscating employee photos of the gatherings. The company’s actions interfered with the union’s right to demonstrate, an activity protected by labor law, the union said.

SPEEA also filed a complaint in August, alleging that Boeing representatives were telling union members they couldn’t make negative comments about the company.

In short, SPEEA says, those were unfair labor practices as defined by law. If the NLRB investigates SPEEA’s claims and finds “reasonable cause,” the agency will issue a complaint, Nancy Cleeland, spokeswoman for the NLRB, wrote in an email.

The importance of such a finding is crucial: “If a strike is about unfair labor practices, as opposed to economics, then the strikers cannot be permanently replaced,” Cleeland wrote. Workers who go on strike for economic reasons rather than unfair labor practices can be permanently replaced by their employer during a work stoppage, according to labor law.

In late September, the union gave Boeing notice that it would cease to recognize the present contract as of Nov. 25 — another step toward securing protected status for a strike. That enables SPEEA leaders to ask members for strike authorization at any time, though SPEEA can’t actually strike until Nov. 26.

Asking for strike authority doesn’t mean there will be a work stoppage. A strike-authority vote gives union negotiators an “important leverage point” in talks with Boeing, SPEEA leaders wrote when answering member questions.

SPEEA has gone on strike against Boeing only twice: for one day in 1993 and for those 40 days in 2000.

So far, SPEEA’s filings against Boeing have been about activities that aren’t necessarily tied to negotiations, said Bill Dugovich, communications director for SPEEA. The union’s labor charges don’t mean that a strike is imminent. SPEEA could try another tactic, a concerted work slowdown, instead of a strike, Dugovich said.

Both Boeing and SPEEA are expected to provide updates from today’s negotiating session.