Boeing agrees to voluntary severance package, but broader agreement with Machinists still far off
Despite speculation that a long-term, no-strike labor agreement is under negotiation at Boeing to help ensure future airplane work for Washington state, labor relations between the company and the Machinist union remain perilous.
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
The Machinists union at Boeing announced Tuesday a deal to ease the sting of the plane maker's continuing layoffs. The company has agreed to offer a voluntary layoff package that could be attractive to older workers.
And yet — despite much speculation that a long-term labor agreement is being negotiated to help ensure future plane work for the state — labor relations between Boeing and the International Association of Machinists (IAM) remain perilous.
Even as IAM District 751 President Tom Wroblewski welcomed the layoff pact, the union's national boss, Tom Buffenbarger, flatly rejected Boeing management's publicly stated goal of a long-term, no-strike agreement with the union.
"It's all smoke and mirrors," said Buffenbarger. "They aren't offering anything."
He added: "This is all a drama being played out for the benefit of the politicians and the Boeing Company. We're not going to agree to a no-strike agreement. They had their chance."
The voluntary layoff package announced Tuesday could save the jobs of younger workers as those approaching retirement see an advantage in volunteering to leave early.
The incentives include up to 13 weeks of severance pay and continued health benefits for six months. In addition, workers 49 and older who volunteer will be eligible for a company pension when they turn 55.
Those are incentives designed to appeal to those nearing retirement and who want to leave. The severance pay offered is only half what a worker laid off involuntarily would get. And workers with skills deemed critical will not be eligible.
However, a previous Boeing voluntary layoff deal in 1993 offered no incentives, said IAM spokeswoman Connie Kelliher.
One veteran Machinist said the Everett assembly plant was abuzz Tuesday with talk of the deal.
"People who want to leave can leave. This is a way that people with young families, that the company has just gotten trained, they can stay," said the Machinist, who asked not to be named.
"It's a win-win. (Boeing) is lowering its labor costs. It's good for morale. It's good for the community."
Wroblewski said the union has pressed for the deal since Boeing said in January it intended to cut 10,000 jobs companywide this year. The state has lost more than 3,000 Boeing jobs since the recent peak last November.
Union sought deal
Wroblewski said discussions to improve relations will continue.
However, his boss, Buffenbarger, went out of his way Tuesday to quash the notion that the layoff deal might lead to a long-term, no-strike deal, an idea floated by politicians to try to secure future Boeing work for the region.
Earlier this month, local politicians including U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, revealed Boeing is pushing the union hard for a no-strike deal by the end of the year.
He presented one aspect of the talks as effectively an ultimatum to the union: That a no-strike deal would mean Everett would get a second 787 final-assembly line, but that no deal would result in the line going somewhere else.
Dicks and Gov. Chris Gregoire said Boeing needed to negotiate with the union and offer something substantial in return.
After those public comments by the politicians, Boeing's top labor negotiator, Doug Kight, laid out the barriers to any long-term deal in a July 14 internal message to all Boeing Commercial Airplane managers.
Kight's message tacitly confirmed that "a series of discussions with union leadership" is indeed focused on reaching a no-strike agreement.
But he also laid out why it will be hard to achieve: A stumbling block for management is that in the absence of a strike option, it would likely have to offer the Machinists some kind of independent arbitration for disputes.
"It's important to realize that a long-term labor agreement, enabled in part by some form of third-party dispute resolution, would ask a great deal of both sides," Kight's letter said.
"It would be difficult for a union to give up its option to strike. At the same time, it would be just as difficult for Boeing to allow a third party to make decisions that affect our competitiveness and how we run our business," the message went on. "No company could give away its ability to run its business as conditions require."
Last week, in a teleconference timed for the company's quarterly earnings report, Boeing CEO Jim McNerney said talks are proceeding.
"The IAM and the company are meeting together, trying to find new ways of working together so that we don't impact our customers ... as badly as we have historically as we go through these disruptions," McNerney said. "We're going to keep doing that."
But Buffenbarger said there is no substance to the talks.
He said Boeing has refused all his suggestions of independent mediators to aid the discussions. And instead of offering some enticements to the union to agree to forfeit its strike weapon, he said, management has been asking the union for suggestions.
"They are trying to get us to bargain with ourselves," Buffenbarger said. "We've seen that tactic before. We're not buying into it."
A veteran local Machinist with knowledge of the talks said there have been meetings both in Seattle and in Washington, D.C.
He cautioned Tuesday that Buffenbarger's position as head of the union requires him to adopt an aggressive public posture. He insisted "labor peace is still negotiable."
But if that's ever to happen, Buffenbarger has a clear message as to who will do the negotiating.
"Boeing is making another ill-fated attempt to negotiate an agreement in the wrong places with the wrong people," Buffenbarger said. "I invite the governor, Norm Dicks and the other politicians to butt out."
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
UPDATE - 08:04 AM
Ford CEO Mulally gets $56.5M in stock award
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.