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Originally published October 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 14, 2008 at 11:53 PM

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Boeing, striking Machinists hit impasse in new talks

Boeing and the striking Machinists union broke off talks after deadlocking over future outsourcing of parts-delivery jobs in the assembly plants.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

The strike by 27,000 Machinists at Boeing looks more intractable than ever after high-level talks between the union and the company broke down Monday afternoon, just a day after they resumed.

The two sides deadlocked over outsourcing the jobs of members who deliver parts to assembly lines. Negotiators didn't get past that issue to discuss other areas of disagreement — including pay — in the strike, now in its sixth week.

"Over the long haul, what they really want to do is get rid of 2,000 of our members," Machinists union district President Tom Wroblewski said in an interview.

A company insider countered that "we thought we were very close [Sunday] night. ... But this morning, the goal posts moved."

About 2,000 union members currently work in delivery inventory, and distribution of parts in the plants. Boeing discussed protecting those people currently employed from layoffs but refused to agree that those same positions would be retained long into the future.

International Association of Machinists (IAM) national aerospace coordinator Mark Blondin said in an interview that "it became clear that it wasn't in the long-term plan for the company to hang onto those jobs."

Blondin said the union was prepared to allow suppliers to come into the Boeing factories and deliver their parts to receiving areas beside the assembly lines.

But he said he insisted that from there, Machinists must be the ones to inventory, track and disperse those parts, both now and in the future.

"They want to phase in the suppliers. And they want to phase out our members," said Blondin.

"We're just not going to bargain away those jobs."

Wroblewski said Boeing did offer some assurances current workers wouldn't be laid off. But he said this assurance was "only for three years" — the length of the contract.

For its part, Boeing said it had made concessions but drew the line at freezing current delivery processes in place with no opportunity for future innovation if it might mean job reductions

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Boeing has all along contended it needs complete flexibility to outsource work both for cost reasons and to secure sales from foreign airlines. In this case, its sticking point was outsourcing for reasons of efficiency.

"We made movement on major issues of concern and importance to the union," said Boeing spokesman Tim Healy. "But no company can guarantee jobs or agree to stop innovating in an effort to become more efficient."

A company insider familiar with the negotiations said union demands Monday would have restricted future innovation in parts delivery.

He said Boeing wanted the freedom in future years to introduce automated processes to make parts delivery more efficient.

The union balked because that potentially could have reduced the parts-delivery work force over time.

That position killed the optimism that prevailed Sunday after company concessions on other outsourcing issues, including facilities-maintenance work.

The result is that the strike, now on day 39, goes on. All commercial-jet production at Boeing has stopped.

Formal talks resumed only Sunday after informal lower-level talks led to a meeting in Everett last Wednesday between Boeing Commercial Airplanes Chief Executive Scott Carson and union leaders.

When talks chaired by federal mediators resumed Sunday in Eastern Washington, Carson joined Boeing labor Vice President Doug Kight to sit down with Blondin and Wroblewski.

Carson returned for a final meeting Monday afternoon, at which point the mediators declared an impasse and adjourned the talks indefinitely.

In the preliminary discussions, the two sides had agreed to tackle the stubborn issue of outsourcing first and to leave discussion of compensation details until later.

They never reached the latter.

After the breakdown, Boeing issued a statement by Kight.

"In light of the current business environment and global market challenges we face, we had hoped we could find a way to move forward. We worked very hard to find solutions, and we are extremely disappointed that the talks broke off," he said.

"We cannot sacrifice our ability to continuously improve productivity and our long-term competitiveness for an agreement.

"The ongoing turmoil in the financial markets provides a reminder of why it would be unwise for Boeing to agree to terms in any contract that would restrict our ability to manage our business," Kight said.

In a statement from the IAM, Wroblewski made clear that the issue is protecting Machinist jobs in the years ahead.

"The IAM is interested in bargaining a contract for the future, which provides success for Boeing and for our work force — but Boeing has a different agenda," Wroblewski said.

"We expect to be a part of the future of the Boeing Company and remain committed to achieving a resolution that protects our members and their families."

So where do things stand now after a return to talks and then such a swift dashing of the hopes raised?

Wroblewski put a brave face on the situation.

"I think we have an understanding of where we both stand in terms of job security. There's some real fundamental issues that the company doesn't want to move on," said Wroblewski. "They are real fundamental for us too in terms of seeing our future dwindle away."

"At one point I thought we were close," he added. "But we didn't get there."

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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