SPEEA leaders defer vote on Boeing contract offer

Boeing Co. engineers and technical workers will have to wait a little longer to weigh in on a contract offer from the company.

That also means Boeing won’t know until mid-February whether workers will strike.

Last week, negotiators for the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace recommended that members turn down the company’s “best-and-final” contract proposal. But the 22,950 engineers and technical workers, about half of whom work in Everett, have been waiting to hear from their 105 council members, who are elected to represent the union in the workplace. On Tuesday, council members put off making a recommendation until Jan. 31 and will spend the next week talking with members and reviewing the offer.

Ballots are to be mailed the week of Feb. 4. SPEEA’s bylaws specify a 10-day voting process, so that pushes the date SPEEA will tally ballots to mid-February.

Meantime, Boeing executives planned to reach out to workers via a company-only webcast Wednesday to urge approval of the offer. SPEEA’s contract vote comes at a crucial time for Boeing. The company’s all-new 787 has been grounded and is the subject of a comprehensive review by the Federal Aviation Administration. Besides that pressing problem, Boeing is tackling production rate increases and development programs like the 787-9, 737 MAX and, for the U.S. Air Force, the KC-46A, a 767-based aerial-refueling tanker.

Last Thursday, union negotiators said they’d ask members for approval to call a strike. That also is on hold. The council members are to decide next week whether to put a strike authorization vote on the ballot.

After nearly a year of talking about a new labor deal, Boeing and SPEEA leaders swapped final offers last week. Boeing agreed to SPEEA’s suggestion to roll over many provisions of the existing contract, including 5 percent annual wage-pool raises, for four more years. However, the company did so with a notable exception: Workers hired after March 1 would be enrolled in a 401(k) retirement plan rather than the defined pension in which existing members would remain enrolled.

SPEEA negotiators say this will create a division between members with pension and those without. Ultimately, they believe, Boeing will freeze increases to the pension plan when there are more SPEEA members who are in the 401(k) retirement than in the pension.

Mike Delaney, vice president of engineering at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, gave the company’s reason behind the retirement switch in a message to employees last week.

“Moving new hires to an enhanced retirement savings plan will provide future employees with a market-leading retirement plan — while allowing Boeing to better manage retirement plan expenses, reduce financial risk and invest in areas critical to the success of our business,” he said in a statement.

SPEEA negotiators also took issue with Boeing’s refusal to guarantee health-care benefits for retirees if Congress raises the Medicare eligibility age to 70 from 65. If that happens, the union estimates, 10,487 members would be affected at a cost of $30,000 annually per married couple.

Boeing declined to make Delaney available for comment on Tuesday. However, he and fellow Boeing engineering executives Conrad Ball and Mark Burgess were to take part in an internal webcast Wednesday to go over the company’s proposal.

In an email announcing the webcast, Boeing leaders call this “an important time in Boeing’s history – a time when we all can come together and focus on the challenges at hand.”

Should SPEEA’s council have a different opinion than the union’s negotiators — either favorable or neutral — it wouldn’t be the first time. In 2000, negotiators recommended that members accept Boeing’s offer. The council declined to make a recommendation. And union members rejected the contract and went on strike a few days later — SPEEA’s only lengthy strike.

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