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Union chief: Wichita proof that Boeing’s serious about moving work elsewhere

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014, at 6:19 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, at 3:46 p.m.

The head of the Machinists union said Thursday that Boeing workers in Puget Sound should use Wichita as a cautionary tale that Boeing isn’t bluffing when officials say they will place work elsewhere.

Boeing sold off its commercial airplane operations in Wichita in 1995, and Spirit AeroSystems was formed from the sale. Boeing is now in the midst of closing its military facilities in Wichita, where it’s had operations for more than 80 years. Those operations are expected to wind down this year, and Boeing will close up shop in the Air Capital.

“When they say they’re serious about siting a plant, a facility, somewhere else or leaving an area, what always hits me first is what happened to us in Wichita,” said Tom Buffenbarger, international president of the Machinists union, which represents hourly workers in Wichita and Puget Sound.

Buffenbarger’s remarks come as Machinists union members vote Friday for the second time on whether to accept an eight-year contract extension and concessions in exchange for the guarantee of production work on Boeing’s 777X, which promises to bring thousands of jobs to Washington state.

Seattle-area union leaders have opposed the contract because they think it involves too many concessions, including a plan to shift workers away from traditional pensions. National leaders of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers have scheduled a vote despite objections of local union officials in Seattle.

Local union leaders in Seattle are urging members to vote no on the offer.

“It’s a bridge too far; it’s asking too much from us,” Wilson Ferguson, president of the Local A unit of District 751, told the New York Times. “The problem is that it seems that our international union is complicit and working with the company to push this thing through.”

District 751’s leaders say it makes sense for Boeing to put 777X assembly in Washington State, largely because there is so much manufacturing expertise and experience there. As a result, they see little justification for far-reaching concessions, the New York Times said.

Since Machinists rejected a contract offer last month, Boeing has solicited bids from other states. Twenty-two states, including Kansas, have submitted offers.

The union should take Boeing seriously when company officials say they are looking to place work elsewhere, Buffenbarger said.

“Boeing has done stuff like this before,” he said. “It’s not a game. … They’re serious when they go to the extent of pitching their case to all these states, and some of these states take it so seriously they reconvene a Legislature that had concluded its business and is done for the year. That’s an expensive move for a state to take.”

After Boeing Machinists went on strike in 2008, Boeing opened a facility in South Carolina, for example, Buffenbarger said. In the end, however, it’s up to members to decide whether to accept Boeing’s proposal.

“I want a clear conscience that they were given the opportunity to make an informed decision,” Buffenbarger said.

Wichita-area Machinists also are expected to vote on the contract Friday, union officials have said. The union represents fewer than 200 hourly workers at Boeing’s Wichita facility, a small figure compared with the 31,000 the Machinists represent in IAM District 751 in Washington.

In Wichita, members can vote from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Machinists District 70 at 3830 S. Meridian.

A year ago, Boeing didn’t tell the union it had been searching for a site for the 777X work, Buffenbarger said. “We learned that from our own folks.” The union then contacted Boeing to ask where it planned to put the work.

“They said, ‘Anyplace but Seattle,’ ” Buffenbarger said.

The Machinists wanted to pitch Seattle as the place, and Boeing’s board of directors agreed to talk with union leaders.

The union noted problems with the South Carolina facility and with Boeing’s global supply chain and the advantages of putting the work in Seattle, Buffenbarger said.

Boeing agreed to negotiate with the union to put 777X work in Seattle, he said.

Members rejected Boeing’s proposal.

“I figured, that’s it. It’s over. We’ll wait until 2016 (when the current contract expires, to negotiate),” Buffenbarger said.

Then Boeing received pressure from community leaders and the governor and was persuaded to make the next move and sit back down and talk, he said.

In its revised proposal, Boeing made it easier to earn raises and added an extra bonus in one of the years of the contract extension.

Boeing’s proposal to move from a pension plan to a defined benefit plan, such as a 401(k), is the main point of disagreement with members, Buffenbarger said.

Seattle is one of the last places where Boeing offers a pension plan, he said.

“I have fought against losing them,” Buffenbarger said.

He knew when members in St. Louis voted to give up pensions that other sites would follow, he said. That’s been the case.

“Our turn was coming,” Buffenbarger said. “If we wanted to build the 777X in Seattle, this is what Boeing says it’s going to take. … I don’t like it. … But it’s about jobs and still earning a pension but in a different form, or no jobs and nobody is going to earn a pension anyway. That’s a decision I think the members have the right to make.”

Contributing: Associated Press

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mmcmillin.

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