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Boeing, SPEEA return to bargaining table

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, at 7:33 p.m.

Analysts and suppliers are closely monitoring Boeing and its professional and technical unions as they return to the negotiating table Wednesday.

Federal mediators called for a break in talks before the holidays.

In October, members of SPEEA’s professional unit, including Boeing engineers, and SPEEA’s technical unit rejected Boeing’s offers of new labor contracts by 95.5 percent and 97 percent respectively.

Contracts for the two units are negotiated simultaneously. Existing contracts expired Nov. 25.

During the next contract vote, SPEEA plans to take a strike authorization vote, which would give union negotiating teams the right to call for a walkout should the contracts be rejected.

It takes a simple majority to authorize a strike.

If authorized, a strike would not automatically take place, however.

First, there would be a seven-day cooling off period and a chance to return to the bargaining table.

“The hope always is that a good showing of support and contract rejection would encourage the company to give an offer that respects our work force,” said SPEEA spokesman Bill Dugovich.

SPEEA has struck Boeing twice, including a work stoppage in 2000 for 40 days and a one-day strike in 1993.

In Wichita, SPEEA has never had a work stoppage.

A SPEEA strike at Boeing would affect Spirit AeroSystems and other suppliers, however.

“A work slowdown at Boeing has the potential of slowing their operations, too,” Dugovich said. “It’s a legitimate concern. It’s certainly something we’re aware of.”

Some of the engineers and technicians at Boeing are involved in the authorization and delivery process of Boeing airplanes, Dugovich said. And some technicians act as a liaison between the engineers and the hourly workers who build airplanes.

Spirit builds portions of all Boeing commercial airplanes, including the fuselage of the popular 737 single-aisle airliner.

SPEEA’s bargaining units represent 15,550 engineers and 7,400 technical workers in Washington, Oregon and Utah.

How seriously Spirit would be hurt would depend on a strike’s length, said SPEEA Midwest director Bob Brewer in Wichita.

“I think we could probably go 30 days and stack up production ... without it having an impact,” Brewer said. “At the end of 30 days, I think we’re going to have to have different discussions.”

A work stoppage would impact Spirit the “minute that Boeing can’t take any more shipments” he said.

In Wichita, Spirit and SPEEA officials plan to meet at the end of the week to discuss the issue, once there’s a clear indication of how things are going in negotiations in Washington state, Brewer said.

Spirit spokesman Ken Evans said the company is in a “wait and see” mode.

“It’s too early to speculate about potential impact on Spirit of a SPEEA strike against Boeing,” Evans said in an e-mail. “We always work contingency plans for situations like this, and make decisions as needed. We certainly hope everything gets resolved without a strike, since that is never a good thing for either party.”

Strikes are never welcome, said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group. But “frankly strikes get averted. People find a way to reach accommodation.”

If one occurs, a work stoppage lasting, say, a month and a half, wouldn’t translate into a month and a half of lost production, however, Aboulafia said.

“It might mean a couple of weeks,” he said. That’s because Boeing would maintain some kind of output using a skeleton crew of managers, Aboulafia said.

“They still build up components and structures to get planes out the door when the strike ends,” he said.

According to SPEEA, the rejected contracts included higher medical premiums, inadequate wage pools, substantial reductions in retirement income for new hires and insufficient pension growth.

Going into this week’s talks, SPEEA also has filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against Boeing alleging unlawful surveillance of members.

SPEEA alleges that Boeing took surveillance photos of engineers and technical employees marching outside the Everett, Wash., factory last month.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com.

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