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Originally published October 4, 2012 at 7:49 PM | Page modified October 5, 2012 at 7:00 AM

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SPEEA offers Boeing an olive branch

SPEEA reached out this week to Boeing’s leadership to try to resolve the labor dispute. It’s holding in reserve options not only to work-to-rule and to strike but also to file a complaint with the NLRB accusing Boeing of breaking labor law by threatening to move engineering work.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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The executive director of Boeing’s white-collar union made a direct approach this week to a top company executive seeking a peaceful way out of the rancorous contract dispute.

“We have an outline of what we think a negotiated settlement looks like that provides a face-saving way forward for both sides,” said Ray Goforth, executive director of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA).

Speaking Thursday after a presentation to The Seattle Times’ editorial board, Goforth would not say to whom he had sent his written invitation to discuss a way forward, only that it was “somebody at a very high level.”

But if peace doesn’t materialize, he believes he has added an option to his weapons of war.

Goforth previously told his members that if Boeing doesn’t satisfy the union, potential actions include, first, a “work-to-rule”—which slows production by an insistence on adhering to minor workplace regulations — and then a strike.

On Thursday, he said the public comments of a Boeing vice president could also lead to legal action at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

SPEEA members Monday resoundingly voted down the company’s initial offer for a new contract to cover 23,000 engineers and technical professionals in the Puget Sound region.

When the two sides reconvened Tuesday, Boeing immediately made three concessions to the union’s demands and expressed a willingness to be flexible at least on some issues.

However, Goforth said removing three objectionable items from a contract that he described as “awful” is not enough.

“They don’t get a Scooby Snack for that,” said Goforth.

Tom McCarty, SPEEA president, also addressing the Times board, said he wants the current contract, not the rejected contract offer, to be used as the benchmark for further discussions.

“If we go back to talks and the company insists on fluffing up that proposal, I see a bad outcome,” said McCarty. “This is not the direction we want to go.”

Goforth said the confrontational negotiations so far can lead only to conflict, in which both sides could lose.

So, Goforth said, “right now, we’re putting our energy into trying to craft a deal that both sides can agree to. We’re trying not to unnecessarily inflame things.”

For that reason, he said, SPEEA won’t file an NLRB complaint against Boeing, even though he believes “we have the makings of a case” based on public comments by Mike Delaney, vice president of engineering at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

Last week, Delaney told the editorial board that if Boeing is forced to give local employees higher compensation than they would earn in other markets, the inevitable outcome will be to move engineering work out of the Puget Sound region.

“It won’t be fast,” Delaney said then.

“But slowly over time, if you become uncompetitive, you have to deal with the arbitrage and leverage other resources.”

Delaney told the Times board this shouldn’t be interpreted as a threat.

And responding Thursday to Goforth’s comments, Boeing spokesman Doug Alder reiterated that “Boeing has made no threats.”

“We have simply noted our ability to use the full resources of the company in order to stay competitive,” Alder said.

That’s not the way Goforth sees it.

As Boeing was reminded in 2011, when the NLRB filed a charge against the company alleging retaliation against the Machinists union for its 2008 strike, it is illegal for a company to punish or threaten workers for engaging in permitted labor activities.

That NLRB case provided the International Association of Machinists (IAM) union significant leverage against the company and so was settled last fall as part of a landmark peace deal between Boeing and that union.

“In some of the statements Mike has made, they have clearly violated the law,” Goforth said.

“We could probably get him in trouble for it and maybe use that leverage to get a deal that is more to our liking. But the preference here is the maintenance of a long-term relationship.”

Goforth said using either union or company power to force a deal in collective bargaining leads inevitably down one road, to a damaging conflict.

“We are sitting on this latent power because we think there is an offramp,” said Goforth. “We’ve made some outreach to the company saying that.”

He said he’s hopeful that his olive-branch offer of high-level talks away from the bargaining table will bear fruit.

Boeing’s Alder said company executives “are fully engaged” and “are and have been interested in keeping all channels of communication open.”

Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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