Machinists at Boeing reject contract; strike on hold for 48 hours as mediator steps in
Machinist voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to reject what Boeing said was its last, best offer. But union leaders agree to give the company 48 hours to do better.
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
Boeing has 48 hours to meet Machinists' demands or it faces a production shutdown.
In a dramatic scene at the headquarters of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) at about 9:30 Wednesday night, union leader Mark Blondin announced an overwhelming strike vote, with 80 percent of the Machinists rejecting the contract, and even more of them, 87 percent, agreeing to strike.
But Blondin then announced a reprieve: He said he had been contacted within the previous 40 minutes by Gov. Christine Gregoire's office and the federal mediator.
"The indications they have given me is that the Boeing Company wishes to return to the table," said Blondin, IAM national aerospace coordinator.
Blondin said he and district President Tom Wroblewski had agreed to give the company an extension of 48 hours.
"They've got 48 hours to bring a deal acceptable to you," he told the crowd of several hundred Machinists. Otherwise, he said, the strike starts at Friday midnight.
The crowd had been whipped into a frenzy before the announcement as the certainty of a majority in favor of striking became clear.
Angry cries erupted from some Machinists who wanted to strike immediately. "Sellout," one yelled. "What was the strike vote for?" shouted another. Others asked for calm.
Blondin argued back from the stage, saying, "We ought to be able to talk on your behalf for two more nights."
Blondin then left with Wroblewski shortly before 10 p.m. He said he was going immediately to meet with Boeing.
In a news conference soon afterward, Boeing's top labor negotiator, Doug Kight, said the company had acceded to the request of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service for further talks.
The clear message from the Machinists is that Boeing had better come to the table with more to offer. Kight said that the company will talk and listen, but he only indirectly implied a willingness to make a new move.
"Our job at this point is to listen to the union. ... We are very interested in understanding from them what are the critical few issues," Kight said. "We will seek to understand and make an assessment of whether there is a path forward."
"This is an emotional process," he added. "I would urge everyone to keep a level head."
Some ignored that. Longtime union activist Don Grinde lit a strike burn barrel outside the Everett plant after the union meeting as some 70 machinists gathered there.
Grinde left the factory gates to go home and post on his blog a call for a wildcat strike in defiance of Blondin and Wroblewski.
"I'm not going back to work," said Grinde. "Our members voted to strike. I'll be out there until Friday."
While Machinists awaited Blondin and Wroblewski's vote announcement earlier, they had begun a rhythmic chant of "union power."
Bringing Boeing back to the table, just days after Kight adamantly asserted that the company's last offer was final, is clear evidence of the IAM's leverage this time.
Throughout Wednesday, Machinists voting at union halls in Everett, Renton, Auburn, Seattle and Tacoma voiced strong support for a strike, suggesting that the company was teetering on the brink of a shutdown.
One thing that must worry Boeing management now is that a new generation of workers is learning about union power.
At the Everett union hall on Wednesday morning, Brett Baehm, 20, one of the thousands of younger workers hired since 2004, reveled in the brotherly solidarity.
He was hired in June to work on the 777. The Boeing offer would have given Baehm an immediate wage increase that looks good to him.
Yet he said he still voted to strike.
"For me, it's a decent contract. But if it's bad for everybody in general, I won't accept it," Baehm said. "Everybody is looking out for each other right now."
If Boeing doesn't improve its offer by Friday, the threat of a lengthy strike is high.
"If we go out one day, it'll be at least 30," said Robert Fullerton, a lead mechanic on the 777 and 30-year Boeing veteran. "This is the best time for our union to get what we need."
One big stumbling block is outsourcing.
For future airplanes, the union wanted to stop the subcontracting of parts-delivery work forced upon it in the 2002 contract and now a reality on the 787.
But Boeing has always refused union demands to give up its ability to outsource.
"Our jobs in parts receiving and kitting are jeopardized," said Judy Simpson, 66, a Machinist for nine years whose son and daughter also work at Boeing.
"They can bring anybody in there and lay us off."
Boeing also appears to have miscalculated the appeal of the economic aspects of its contract offer to both the younger, newer hires and the more senior machinists at the top of the pay scale.
One older Machinist, Denny Maloy, outlined the perspective of longtime workers in an e-mail message.
"I have to foremost think of myself and my wife's future," he wrote. "We do get paid well, but we are more concerned with our health and retirement plans."
Boeing's offer increased the basic monthly retirement pension from $70 to $80 per year of service.
Machinists wanted the company to do better, given $13 billion in net profits over the last five years, half of those profits from the commercial airplane unit.
Soon after the initial offer from Boeing last week, Machinists started forwarding around e-mails from a 2006 Boeing filing with the Securities Exchange Commission showing that at that time low-level executives got monthly pensions of $400 per year of service and top executives got $4,000 for each year of service.
The medical plan also was cited by many Machinists as a reason for striking.
Brett Pemmant, 45, a 20-year Boeing veteran, said he fears that a host of small increases in plan costs -- higher deductibles, higher copays, raised out-of-pocket maximums, prescription drug cost increases -- will eat away the wage increases.
Newer hires also have other reasons for rejecting the offer.
The average Machinist wage under the existing contract is about $54,000 base pay, or $65,000 with overtime.
But many of the Machinists taken on since Boeing began hiring again in 2004 earn much less than that.
The Boeing blue-collar wage ladder starts low and rises slowly for five and a half years. Only after six years of service do Machinists shoot to a much higher salary.
Company wage data filed with the state Department of Revenue show that, as of the end of last year, nearly 5,000 Boeing Machinists earned less than $20 an hour, equivalent to a base wage of about $42,000 a year.
And 3,500 of those earned less than $15 an hour, or a base wage of about $31,000 a year.
So for those Machinists with between two and six years of service, the Boeing offer would mean a 5 percent raise the first year on a low-level wage and would mean they'll get the same or just a few cents more than new hires coming in next week.
That's why thousands of relatively recent hires considered the increased minimum wage unfair.
"Everyone is getting a raise except for us in the black hole," said John Branstetter, Jr., 51, a structures mechanic with two years at Boeing. He previously worked for Goodrich until he was laid off in the downturn that followed the Sept. 11 attacks.
Likewise, Jayleen Roman, who was hired 18 months ago as an electrician on the 787 line, was incensed that new hires will earn the same rate as her.
"We've been working one-and-a-half years for what?" she asked.
Roman said her family has a long Boeing tradition. Her dad has been there 28 years and her brother 11 years.
She knew to save for a strike.
"When you apply to Boeing, you learn to expect this," she said.
Brian Heinz, 51, a mechanic on the 787 Dreamliner program, said Wednesday morning that he thought a strike was certain and that it could be a long one.
"It all depends on who blinks first," said Heinz.
Wednesday night, it surely looked as if Boeing blinked first.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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