Retirees grateful for Boeing benefits, split over contract

Wes Nielsen lives on Easy Street. He really does, it’s a short street near Everett’s Beverly Lane. He is also a Boeing retiree with a traditional pension.

“I did not have to pay into a pension,” he said.

Some might say that puts the 82-year-old on another type of easy street, the state of being financially secure.

He earned it. Nielsen, a longtime member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, worked 30 years for the Boeing Co. He started in 1954 at Boeing’s Plant 2 in Seattle, and spent years at the Everett plant.

“I worked in the manufacturing part, putting airplanes together. I started on the B-52 and finished on the B-2,” he said. Nielsen also worked on the KC-135, and on Boeing’s 707, 727, 737, 747 and 767.

He was an IAM shop steward. He weathered several strikes, and layoffs, too.

Yet Nielsen said if he had been voting on the Boeing contract extension that IAM members nixed this week, he would have chosen to accept it. On Wednesday, IAM members soundly rejected the proposal, with 67 percent of those who voted turning it down.

“I have been surprised,” Nielsen said. “They were going to be getting $10,000. That’s a nice piece of change.”

Nielsen knows that for most Americans, the retirement picture has changed. Company-funded pensions are rare, and most workers must contribute partly or greatly to their own nest eggs.

“Boeing is very generous with its people, and pays very well,” Nielsen said. He was disappointed by the immediate negative reaction some union members had to the company’s offer.

Nielsen certainly doesn’t speak for all retired Machinists. Like union members who voted on the contract that could have assured production of Boeing’s new 777X in Everett, the former workers are split on the issue.

Paul Staley, 73, was both a member of the Machinists union and an actual machinist. The Everett man retired in 1998 after 32 years with Boeing. He also has a pension — a benefit the proposed contract would have ended and replaced with a 401(k) type of retirement plan.

In the 1960s, Staley was among the thousands of Boeing workers known as “the Incredibles” who built the first 747 in less than 16 months.

He thinks the company could have sold the eight-year contract proposal with a give-and-take approach. “This was given to the employees as ‘You do what I say.’ It was either buy this or get a kick in the pants,” Staley said.

Staley is saddened by changes in the company that he said began “about the time I retired.”

“They’ve lost touch with the way it used to be,” Staley said. “On that original 747 crew, I really loved my work. My managers understood our work. They had worked with us.”

Staley places some blame on workers who perhaps haven’t kept pace with technical and global changes. “The whole world has changed,” he said.

“But on this contract, I really think it went down because of the way employees were treated, not because of what was offered,” Staley said. “It was like, you play ball with me or I’m going to beat you up.”

Everett’s Alan Gale, 74, has a strong opinion about the contract offer even though he wasn’t in a union at Boeing.

“I was an estimator in finance,” said Gale, who retired from Boeing nine years ago. Like Staley and Nielsen, he is part of the Bluebills, a group of Boeing retirees who do volunteer work.

“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Gale said about Wednesday’s contract vote. “I thought it was a terrible offer. At the end of the day, they were losing, not gaining.” At the same time, Gale said, “I have mixed emotions about it. When I started in aerospace, I made $2.10 an hour.”

Gale sees competition on Boeing’s horizon. Thirteen years ago, he worked in Asia doing modifications on 747s. “I was in Beijing. From what I have seen, they have every capability of building airplanes,” he said.

The men are grateful for the careers they had, and the benefits they still receive. They proudly represent Boeing as volunteers. Donating their time now, they have put together science kits for the Everett School District, and have worked with charities on holiday gift and meal programs.

“It’s something to keep me active,” said Gale, who still has access to a Boeing office and computers to work on the Bluebills newsletter.

None of the three can say what Boeing’s workforce will look like 20 years from now. Will Everett be on easy street?

Nielsen wishes union members would have shown more wisdom in their vote. Staley wishes the company would have taken more time to negotiate.

“I have two sons who still work at Boeing. I think one voted it up and the other voted it down,” Staley said. “It was asking people to make a decision for the next 30 years of their life, and to do it this instant.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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