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Originally published October 26, 2012 at 1:42 PM | Page modified October 26, 2012 at 6:00 PM

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Boeing, engineer contract talks take a positive turn

A breakthrough this week in the contract talks between Boeing and its white-collar engineering union leaves both sides optimistic a settlement is possible.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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The contract dispute between Boeing and its engineering union now appears headed toward a peaceful settlement after a breakthrough in negotiations this week.

“It really looks like we are on a path to getting there,” said Ray Goforth, executive director of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA).

“There’s a lot of work to do,” he added in an interview Friday, “This still could all fall apart. But everyone now seems pretty committed to not letting that happen.”

A person familiar with the talks on Boeing’s side — but who is not officially authorized to speak and so asked not to be identified — agreed.

“The talks have taken a turn for the better this week and are more productive,” the Boeing source said. “We’ll have to see how that’s sustained.”

After a successful bargaining session Thursday, the two sides agreed to meet again Wednesday.

But in the interim, they are trading emails and phone calls that will continue into next week, Goforth said.

The shift marks a new optimism in talks to pin down a new contract for 23,000 engineering and technical staff, almost all in the Puget Sound region. Earlier this month, the union’s members voted overwhelmingly to reject Boeing’s initial offer.

The breakthrough came last Wednesday, the day Boeing announced strong financial and operational results. Goforth said, “Suddenly we started to negotiate in a meaningful way.”

Boeing said in a news release that it had made a concession on health-care benefits.

Though the company still wants to shift some health-benefit costs to the employees, it removed language it had inserted that the union interpreted as an aggressive threat to union rights.

Boeing said it agreed to amended language that protected those rights “consistent with the current contracts.”

“That set a tone that there’s not inevitable conflict here,” Goforth said. “In this different atmosphere, we are now trying to catch up.

“We had been very polarized. Now it’s like, OK, if we are actually going to work this out, what do we need to do to make that happen?”

The day after that breakthrough, another collaborative session followed. While in the past the two sides had issued warring news releases after talks, on Thursday they issued identical statements citing another round of “productive discussions.”

The current contract expires Nov. 25, the Sunday after Thanksgiving Day. But a settlement could come relatively quickly.

Goforth said SPEEA will work hard to reach an agreement “over the next couple of weeks.”

In the meantime, next week SPEEA members will continue its rounds of lunchtime rallies and marches around various Boeing sites.

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

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