Engineers and technical workers at The Boeing Co. returned a split decision in voting on new four-year contract offers. Engineers accepted their offer, and technical workers rejected theirs, while also giving their negotiation team authority to call a strike if necessary.
In votes tallied Feb. 19 by the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) Local 2001, engineers in the Professional Unit accepted Boeing’s offer 6,483 to 5,514. The Technical Unit rejected their offer 2,868 to 3,203 and granted strike authorization by a vote of 3,903 to 2,165.
The engineers (aerospace, electrical and other fields) and technical workers (designers, technical writers, planners and others) work on plans for new planes and solve problems that arise on the factory floor. The assembly of the planes is performed by members of the Machinists Union, which agreed to a four-year contract in 2011.
SPEEA, an affiliate of the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, represents 22,950 employees at Boeing (15,550 engineers). Most work in the Puget Sound region of Washington state, but the contracts also cover 200 employees at the Gresham plant in Oregon, as well as workers in Utah and California.
The union bargains contracts for the Professional Unit and Technical Unit at the same time, but the agreements are separate and independent from each other.
Negotiating teams from both units had recommended that workers reject the offers and support strike authorization.
SPEEA last struck Boeing in 2000 when all workers walked off the job for 40 days. That strike slowed airplane production to a crawl and prevented Boeing from delivering aircraft.
A key sticking point in the most recent bargaining has been Boeing’s demand to switch new hires to a defined contribution pension plan, i.e., a 401(k). Union officials say the new retirement plan slashes benefits by 41 percent. Boeing’s analysis shows a 33 percent cut.
“Pick your favorite analysis, or do one of your own; it’s a significant cut in the retirement contribution,” said SPEEA Executive Director Ray Goforth in a website video to members.
Boeing also refused to ensure existing employees their benefits would not be affected by changes to the Social Security cap on taxable income (scrap the cap) or raising the Medicare eligibility age to 70. Both are being considered by Congress and, according to union officials, would dramatically impact existing retirement packages.
“Interestingly, The Boeing Company has amended the executives’ pension so that it is protected from ‘scrap the cap,’” Goforth said. “We asked for similar protections for (members) and their answer was, ‘why are you worrying about it; you don’t need to worry about this.’”
Boeing did agree to extend most elements of the previous contracts, including 5 percent annual wage pools and no increases to employees for medical coverage. Union officials said it was members’ activism and their overwhelming rejection of the company’s first contract proposals in October 2012 that forced Boeing to improve its offer.
SPEEA contracts expired Nov. 25, 2012. Negotiations started in November 2011. During that time the union has filed three unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against Boeing. The most recent was Feb. 13, after company security, acting on management orders, banned engineers and technical workers from leafletting at the Everett factory. The actions are in addition to reports of managers holding mandatory meetings with employees to interrogate and intimidate them regarding the contract votes. The other ULPs relate to Boeing taking surveillance photographs of employees marching last year inside and outside the factory, and for seizing employee cameras and photographs of union marches.
All of the charges are pending before the National Labor Relations Board.
Meantime, SPEEA and Boeing met Feb. 27 (after this issue went to press) under the auspices of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to “explore settlement options.”
Boeing has said its previous proposal was the company’s “best and final offer.”
“There are pathways to a negotiated agreement available,” Goforth said prior to the talks. “With this second rejection by technical workers of Boeing takeaways, it’s time for the company to stop wasting resources and improve its offer to reflect the value and contributions technical workers bring to Boeing. That way, we can avoid a strike and focus on fixing the problems of the 787 and restoring customer confidence in Boeing.”
Boeing tried to build its Dreamliner 787 passenger jet on the cheap by outsourcing much of the work. After experiencing yearslong delays, the Dreamliner is currently grounded because of problems with the plane’s lithium-ion batteries.
Boeing currently is enjoying record profits, a completely funded pension plan, 4,200 airplanes on backorder, and $20 billion cash on hand, the union said.