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Originally published July 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 17, 2008 at 3:39 PM

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Machinists give strike a chance

Girding for a fierce contract battle this fall, members of the Machinists union who work at Boeing voted Wednesday to authorize a strike if negotiations with the company break down.

Seattle Times staff reporter

While Boeing showed off its jets at the Farnborough Air Show in England, its employees flaunted their own strength back in KeyArena.

Girding for a fierce contract battle this fall, members of the Machinists union who work at Boeing voted Wednesday to authorize a strike if negotiations with the company break down.

The union reported a 99 percent landslide but is not releasing the exact tally.

The vote, which required a two-thirds majority for approval, does not mean that a strike will occur or is likely. But it gives union leaders clout at the bargaining table by demonstrating workers' willingness to strike. An actual strike would require another two-thirds vote.

Negotiations for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers contract, which expires in September, began in May. The contract covers 27,000 workers, 25,000 of them in the Puget Sound region.

Chants of "strike" swept the fired-up crowd of an estimated 14,000 in KeyArena. Union members and leaders said they would make big demands of Boeing and, unlike in recent negotiations, had the leverage to secure them.

"It's no secret, we are in the strongest bargaining position we have been in years, and we intend to leverage that position," said Tom Wroblewski, president of the union's Washington district.

He and the other union leaders, greeted by handshakes and applause, marched into the arena to the strains of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." In Wroblewski's 20-minute speech, he repeated at least 21 times the event's catchphrase, "It's our time this time."

Boeing is being pressured by an order backlog of more than $340 billion and an already delayed 787 delivery. The 787 Dreamliner's first flight is scheduled this fall.

Union leaders hope that on this tight production schedule, Boeing won't be able to abide a strike, and, with soaring profits, could stand to make some concessions to workers.

"Hopefully Boeing can't afford a strike," said material handler David Raines, who has weathered two layoffs in his 20-year stint at Boeing. "Not that I want to strike," he added, "that's for sure."

In 2005, the union struck for a month.

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Whereas they barely held their ground in the last contract, union members said, Boeing and the union are now on better footing. In the last round of negotiations three years ago, 8,000 members were laid off. The union has since added 6,000 members.

Employees said they want a larger slice of Boeing's soaring profit — $1.2 billion last quarter.

"We're the ones out there building the planes, and we need to share more of the profits that Boeing makes," said electrical technician Dennis Bolestridge.

Topping their wish list are cost-of-living-adjusted retirement benefits, expanded medical coverage and a general wage increase.

The chief labor negotiator for Boeing, Doug Kight, has said the company will offer a compensation package that boosts entry-level wages but will look for other ways to give additional compensation to higher-paid employees instead of a wage raise.

Boeing's Puget Sound plants were emptied today as workers flocked to KeyArena for the rally and vote. The union requires them to work part of the day, but some said they were pressured by supervisors to work their entire shift if it did not coincide with the meeting.

A Boeing spokesman said employees were excused without pay for a "reasonable amount of time" to travel to KeyArena and vote. But he said the company was disappointed that the vote was held on a weekday and surrounded with other activities, such as free tickets to Seattle Center attractions, that conflicted with working hours.

The voting was encumbered by traffic jams and parking shortages en route to Seattle Center. Many members did not arrive until after the speeches and waited in lines for up to 30 minutes before they could cast their votes.

Organizers said they hadn't anticipated the gridlock; past strike-sanction meetings have been held at Safeco Field and Memorial Stadium.

After the voting, Machinists exchanged their ballots for free tickets to the Fun Forest amusement park, the Pacific Science Center and Experience Music Project. Many brought their families to enjoy the free admission to the attractions.

"Do you know why we're here?" one Machinist said to his two young children while waiting for the rally to begin inside KeyArena. "It's a big show of support to show the company we're serious." When his neighbor stood and began shouting, the father added, "That's why everyone is all excited."

The final vote tally includes hand-counted ballots in Seattle, Portland and Wichita, Kans.

Isaac Arnsdorf: 206-464-2397 or iarnsdorf@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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