Was Machinists’ strike the last straw for Boeing?

EVERETT — Was the Machinists’ strike a big win for labor or the beginning of the end for the Boeing Co. in Washington state?

About 27,000 Machinists will report back to work at Boeing this week, after 57 days on strike. It was the union’s second consecutive strike and its third longest in history. The Machinists and Boeing agreed to a four-year deal that guarantees 5,000 union members’ jobs and provides 15 percent wage increases over the contract.

But even before the strike’s end, some industry observers speculated the strike may be the final push of Boeing’s commercial aircraft production out of the Puget Sound region.

“This strike, following myriad others and with little hope of improved relations, will almost certainly precipitate a BCA exit” from the Puget Sound region, wrote Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, last week.

Aboulafia envisions Boeing moving its commercial airplanes division to the southern states over the next decade. The South has “weaker unions and right-to-work laws that diminish union power. As the car companies realized, it’s easier to train flexible workers than it is to work with experienced but inflexible workers.”

During the strike, Boeing executives hinted that Aboulafia’s assessment might be correct.

Jim McNerney, chief executive of Boeing, sent a message to workers suggesting that the company’s competitors are the only ones who benefit from the strike.

“We believe this track record of repeated union work stoppages is earning us a reputation as an unreliable supplier to our customers — who ultimately provide job security by buying our airplanes,” McNerney said.

McNerney noted that Machinists’ leaders have urged members to strike four out of the last five contracts.

The latest 57-day strike didn’t improve relations between Boeing and the union, acknowledged Tom Wroblewski, district president for the Machinists, after the union voted Saturday to ratify Boeing’s contract offer.

Wroblewski said Saturday that both sides of any relationship have to keep working on it for the partnership to be successful.

The Machinists’ relationship with Boeing is “not so damaged that it’s irreparable,” he said.

The Machinists’ leaders painted the strike as a battle for middle-class America, not just for Boeing workers.

“This battle was not just about money, but about ethics, integrity, and respect,” union leaders wrote in a memo to members last week

Wroblewski and Mark Blondin, aerospace coordinator for the Machinists, have accused Boeing of not bargaining in good faith. After wracking up a record backlog of jet orders, the company “came at us with takeaways on health care, pension and early retiree medical” benefits, Blondin said. And Boeing tried to go around the collective bargaining process, he said.

“I think the Boeing Co. recognizes that they have a lot of talent here,” Blondin said. “But Boeing needs to change its bargaining tactics,” he said.

Wroblewski doesn’t put a lot stock in Aboulafia’s prediction that this strike will push Boeing out of the Puget Sound region.

“We’ve been battling that (theory) since the 777,” he said.

But Wroblewski’s mindset is what analyst Aboulafia suggests will do in the Machinists here in Washington state.

The Machinists have “some legitimate grievances” against Boeing, Aboulafia wrote, but “they also have little appreciation for the fragility of what they’ve got.”

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

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