Boeing, engineers get jump on talks

Representatives of the Boeing Co. and negotiators for the union representing the company’s engineers were to begin discussing a new labor agreement Thursday and Friday.

The contract between Boeing and the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) doesn’t expire until October.

SPEEA leaders informed members about the commencement of talks in a message posted Wednesday on the union website.

“We’re going into these meetings with an open mind,” said Bill Dugovich, SPEEA communications director.

SPEEA and Boeing typically have a lengthy negotiation process. In 2008, the main negotiators scheduled their first meeting in early June with an exchange of contract proposals planned for September. SPEEA’s contract didn’t expire until December that year.

Dugovich characterized the discussions this week as “preliminary,” although they are taking place slightly earlier than normal.

He declined to say whether SPEEA and Boeing could strike a deal early, as Boeing and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers did in late-2011, nearly a year before the previous contract expired.

“We’re open to things with the understanding our teams have been working on a list of more than 100 contract items to discuss,” Dugovich said.

But “it’s only two days of meetings,” he said.

Boeing spokeswoman Bev Holland said the company has ongoing and regular meetings with SPEEA and described the talks this week similarly. However, Holland acknowledged that Boeing has begun contract discussions with the union.

Even if Boeing and SPEEA manage to come up with a deal, union members would need to ratify any contract agreement.

The nearly 20,000 engineers and technical workers represented by SPEEA in the Puget Sound region are key to Boeing’s success.

Talks come at a time when the jet maker is increasing aircraft production to work off a backlog of more than 4,000 orders. Just as important when it comes to engineers, the company also has a busy development schedule, with design work under way for the 737 MAX, the 767-based aerial-refueling tanker for the U.S. Air Force and new versions of the 787. Additionally, Boeing expects to launch later this year a program to upgrade the Everett-built 777.

SPEEA executive director Ray Goforth indicated last December the union would be open to early contract discussions.

“Our focus is on getting a good contract,” Goforth said in an interview with The Herald last year. “If we could get one quickly, that would be good for everyone.”

Last June, Goforth floated the idea of using binding arbitration to hammer out a contract. That idea didn’t take flight.

However, last fall representatives for Boeing and the Machinists privately hashed out a deal — outside their standard negotiating procedure — that guaranteed the company will build the re-engined 737 MAX in Renton. The union also dropped a labor complaint against Boeing as part of that agreement. In December, Machinists approved the four-year contract extension that’s good until September 2016.

In an interview after the Machinists ratified the contract, Goforth noted how Boeing was in a more-problematic position in 2008.

“In 2008, the company was struggling,” Goforth said.

Boeing had just come out of the Machinists strike, the 787 was behind schedule and the economy was teetering. By early 2009, the company began laying off workers as airlines delayed or canceled jet orders.

Orders and deliveries are back on track in 2012. Boeing has been adding workers over the past year with the boost in production rate.

“The company is doing quite well,” Goforth said in December.

SPEEA and Boeing typically have negotiated contracts without the union going on strike. SPEEA has gone on strike only twice. One of those strikes lasted only 24 hours. The 2000 strike lasted 40 days.

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

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