Talks on hiatus: Boeing, SPEEA ‘very far apart’

Nearly eight months after contract talks began, the Boeing Co. and the union representing engineers and technical workers are no closer to reaching an agreement.

In some respects, they’re farther apart, judging by the increased level of frustration expressed by the company and the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace. Late Wednesday, a federal mediator put talks on hold between Boeing and SPEEA until after the first of the year.

“It’s certainly not a positive sign,” Scott Hamilton, an analyst with Issaquah-based Leeham Co., said on Thursday. “It just tells me that the two sides are very far apart.”

Boeing had requested assistance last week from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in talks with SPEEA, which represents 22,765 Puget Sound-area workers. After observing meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, mediators suggested Boeing and SPEEA suspend negotiations for the rest of the year. Boeing and SPEEA agreed.

On Thursday, a spokesman for Boeing declined to comment on the situation.

The union, however, spoke through action, scheduling two additional training sessions for strike picket captains this month. SPEEA held two sessions earlier this week, one in Everett and one in Tukwila.

“We’re continuing on the same track we were on” before negotiations were halted, said Bill Dugovich, SPEEA communications director.

That track includes preparing members for the possibility of a strike. It also means SPEEA leaders continue to urge members to refuse to work voluntary overtime and to engage in a “work-to-rule” campaign that means members follow Boeing procedures rather than using more efficient practices they’ve developed over time.

That could slow jet deliveries. SPEEA members not only design and test Boeing jets, they are responsible for making sure aircraft are up to standards for delivery.

The federal mediators “could see the gulf was wide on many issues,” Dugovich said. But the halt in contract talks doesn’t change things. “All the issues … are still there,” he said.

Boeing and SPEEA started negotiating back in April. As meetings continued into the early summer, union leaders were upbeat about getting a deal by Oct. 6, when the union’s existing contract was scheduled to expire. By the time Boeing presented a first offer in early September, talks had gone awry. Members overwhelmingly rejected Boeing’s initial contract Oct. 1.

Over the past two months, Boeing and SPEEA have exchanged new contract offers but have remained far apart on key issues such as wages, medical benefits and pension. Boeing has continued to stress a need to remain competitive while SPEEA says members should be rewarded for helping the company achieve record profits.

“I’m just not confident right now that a solution is in sight,” said analyst Hamilton.

Should SPEEA leaders call for a strike, a step that would require authorization by a vote of members, it would occur as Boeing is increasing jet production. And Boeing has several development projects in the works, including the 787-9, 737 MAX and 767-based tanker.

“I don’t think Chicago (Boeing corporate) would want a disruption,” Hamilton said.

However, the analyst believes, the possibility of a strike is more likely than it was a couple months ago.

During SPEEA’s only major strike, a 40-day work stoppage in 2000, Boeing’s jet deliveries dropped by 50 that year. As costly as a strike would be to Boeing, it also could have consequences for the union.

“Boeing certainly would want to move (engineering work) around more” if SPEEA struck, Hamilton said.

Under federal law, Boeing can’t move work in retaliation for a strike. The company’s decision to put 787 work in South Carolina after a 2008 strike by the local district of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers led to a federal lawsuit by the National Labor Relations Board.

Even by SPEEA’s account, the company already has been moving engineering work out of the Puget Sound region, though the company says it has enough resources here to handle new development projects.

“If I was Boeing, I’d be talking about how Washington can’t provide enough engineers,” Hamilton said.

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

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