Contract talks: Boeing, Machinists differ on progress

  • By Michelle Dunlop Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, August 20, 2008 8:55pm
  • Business

EVERETT — It’s crunch time for the Boeing Co. and its Machinists union.

With a deadline and a labor strike looming, the aerospace company and the union representing the workers who build its jets head into round-the-clock negotiations at a SeaTac hotel today. Boeing and the Machinists have been meeting and exchanging proposals since May. But key issues — wages, benefits, job security — stand in the way of a new three-year labor contract.

Not surprisingly, the two sides paint different pictures on progress made up to this point. Union officials said there has been little. Boeing negotiators said it’s been quite a bit.

“The members aren’t asking how negotiations are going. The members are asking how long we’ll be on strike,” said Tom Wroblewski, the Machinists’ district president.

The roughly 24,000 Machinists who work at Boeing factories in the Puget Sound region will vote on a new contract Sept. 3. If two-thirds of the union’s members reject the company’s offer, the Machinists could walk out at midnight. A strike would shut down Boeing’s factories and halt progress on its delayed 787 jet.

“Boeing needs to get serious about their proposals,” Wroblewski said.

Boeing and the Machinists started discussions much earlier than previous contract years.

The company approached contract talks differently this year, with the intent of holding “open and transparent” negotiations, said Doug Kight, Boeing’s chief negotiator.

“I’m very, very pleased with the progress we’ve made,” Kight said.

Kight estimated that the union and company have reached agreements on about half of the issues in the contract. Boeing has submitted proposals on major issues, such as health care, far in advance of round-the-clock negotiations. But Kight acknowledged the two had not come to terms on the economic or more controversial issues.

“Those are challenging issues,” he said.

Most recently, the company released details on the incentive plan it offered to the Machinists. Kight said the company wants Machinists to have a “greater line of sight between progress and reward” and existing incentive plans don’t offer that. Wroblewski isn’t impressed with the plan.

“It doesn’t even have a possible payout until 2010,” Wroblewski said.

The union wants to be included in the same incentive program as Boeing’s other labor group, its engineers union.

Boeing has vowed to hand over its “best and final” offer to the Machinists before the Labor Day weekend. That’s in response to requests from union members, Kight said. Boeing could submit its offer as early as Aug. 28, but that isn’t a firm deadline, Kight said.

But Wroblewski believes an offer made that soon would cut off negotiation time too quickly.

The Machinists say Boeing has bordered on breaking labor laws, which prohibit the company from bargaining directly with union members.

“They need to be communicating with us,” Wroblewski said. “Let’s do the negotiating at the table.”

Boeing’s Kight said he’s been meeting with Machinists, answering their questions and gathering input on the contract. He denies that anyone at Boeing has tried to negotiate directly with employees.

“I want to hear from the employees,” Kight said.

But Wroblewski said Boeing already has angered many Machinists with some of the proposals it has published, such as one that eliminates a defined pension plan for new members in lieu of a 401(k)-type retirement plan.

A recent union survey showed that 86 percent of Machinists who participated in the poll opposed the change in pension plans for new members. And the Machinists are showing their displeasure with the proposal by rallying at Boeing’s Everett factory on their Wednesday lunch breaks. That type of demonstration typically doesn’t happen until intense negotiations begin, Wroblewski said.

Kight noted that the Machinists had “voiced an opposition” to Boeing’s pension plan offering.

Wroblewski did credit Boeing with keeping a ongoing dialogue with the labor group. It’s that type of communication that gives Kight hope a labor strike can be avoided.

“I’m optimistic,” Kight said. “I think we will find a way.”

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

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