Boeing-SPEEA labor talks continue, but frustration voiced on both sides

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by GLENN FARLEY / KING 5 News Aviation Specialist

NWCN.com

Posted on November 28, 2012 at 6:40 PM

The union representing 23,000 Boeing engineers and technicians was an early adopter of social media, using Twitter four years ago to communicate updates during its last round of negotiations with the company.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace took to Twitter again, saying: “Boeing Risks a Strike in SPEEA Negotiations.”

Negotiators for SPEEA and Boeing were back in talks Wednesday morning. Both sides say they’re working to get a deal. But months into the process and after Boeing’s first tentative offer was roundly voted down by SPEEA rank and file, both sides still appear far apart.

Wednesday morning’s session focused on cost issues related to the Ed Well’s Partnership, a joint training program.  SPEEA says Boeing’s aim is to cut training; Boeing says it’s simply trying to control costs moving forward.  A third session for the week is scheduled for Thursday morning at SPEEA’s Tukwila headquarters.
 
The divide seems to center on fundamentally different views of what the future should look like. SPEEA says its members are key to the company’s future ... they design and test the jets. Union leaders say it was SPEEA members who got the troubled 787 Dreamliner program back on track, and are deserving of pay increases of at least 6 percent from a company with more than $6 billion in the bank. 

Demand for engineers and techs remains strong at Boeing, SPEAA notes, given this period of unprecedented global airline expansion and demand for the company’s jets.

Boeing is much more conservative, saying it intends to keep its compensation at market-leading levels, but adding it cannot pay too far above competitors at other American aerospace companies like Northrop-Grumman and Lockheed, which they say would make Boeing uncompetitive, particularly in a world of shrinking defense spending. SPEEA members work on both military and commercial programs, and price competition between Boeing and Airbus on airliner deals is also considered very tight.

Now talk of a strike is on the rise, both from SPEEA leadership and informally from union members. More parallels are drawn between the current negotiations and those of 1999, when long rounds of talks resulted in two rejected contract offers and, ultimately, a 40-day strike in 2000.

As of Sunday, SPEEA members could legally go out on strike, even though the last contract ended October 6. In a message to members released Tuesday night, SPEEA’s leadership said, “We are doing everything possible to avoid the need for a work stoppage. However, as it’s also important to be prepared, the SPEEA Bargaining Unit Negotiations Support (BUNS) committee is holding two picket captain training sessions next week.”

The message closed with a reminder: “SPEEA members are also reminded to wear their red SPEEA T-shirts on Wednesday to show support for our negotiation teams.” 

The negotiations have focused on three big areas.

Pay: The company is now offering to increase the wage pools for engineers by up to 4.5 percent a year. For technicians, Boeing would boost wage pools by up to 3.5 percent a year with minimum raises of 1.5 percent for all members. The union is also fighting against “pay disparity between the Professional and Technical employees.” 

Retirement: SPEEA is trying to hold on to a traditional defined-benefit pension plans while the company pushes 401(k) style retirement plans for newly hired professional employees. 

Medical: Boeing wants SPEEA-represented employees to pay more out of their own pocket, which other Boeing employees both inside and outside of unions already do. The question is how much, and the medical issue has yet to be seriously discussed out at the table.

Last week’s talks resulted in a new point of contention for the union -- how to handle survivor benefits for same-sex spouses now that Washington voters have approved same-sex marriage. The company says it's still studying the proposal, and notes it’s a leader in the area of diversity and inclusion. But the company says it’s also examining how this would impact its already growing pension obligations.

Boeing spokesman Doug Alder said Wednesday that the company is still engaged in the negotiation process. SPEEA, meanwhile, has expressed frustration that it’s not getting answers to its counter proposals.

Boeing has published a point-by-point list of 15 proposals it’s already withdrawn or revised -- ranging from cost-of-living formulas to elimination of medical benefits for retirees.

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