November 30, 2011

Boeing, Machinists reach tentative deal

Boeing’s Machinists union announced a tentative contract deal Wednesday that, if ratified, could have a large impact on Wichita.

Boeing’s Machinists union announced a tentative contract deal Wednesday that, if ratified, could have a large impact on Wichita.

The agreement extends the union’s labor contract with Boeing for four years. And it includes a promise from Boeing that it will make good on a plan to open a completion center for the Air Force refueling tanker in Wichita should the plant remain open, said Steve Rooney, a top union official for the Machinists District Lodge 70 in Wichita.

Should Boeing decide to close its facilities here, the tanker work would be performed in the Puget Sound area, Rooney said.

The tentative deal also includes an agreement to build Boeing’s 737 MAX in Renton, Wash., where Boeing’s current 737 is assembled. And the Machinists said that if the contract is approved, it would drop its National Labor Relations Board dispute with the company.

Boeing officials announced last week it was studying the future of its Wichita facility, which includes determining whether to close the Wichita site. The site employs about 2,100 people.

“Obviously, there are lots of things that we have to work on,” Rooney said.

He said he plans to meet with Boeing officials in Wichita about the issue to determine what can be done to ensure that the plant remains open.

The first step, however, is moving forward with the contract agreement that, should members ratify it, shows a working relationship with Boeing – a different relationship than the union has had in the past, Rooney said. The union represents about 400 hourly workers in Wichita.

“So we can sit down openly and discuss these items to see what we can do,” Rooney said. “It’s a step in the right direction.”

Union officials are unanimously recommending ratification. Approval means the company won’t have to worry about a work stoppage in September when the current contract expires, Rooney said.

Officials from Boeing’s engineering and technical union in Wichita also plan to hold an informational meeting with local Boeing officials today to talk about the plant’s future.

“We want to understand what got them to this point,” said Bob Brewer, Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace Midwest director.

The union wants to understand the facility’s cost structure and any options that may be there to bring some work to Wichita, Brewer said.

The 737 MAX

The tentative deal struck between Boeing and the Machinists includes an agreement to build Boeing’s 737 MAX in Renton, Wash., where Boeing’s current 737 is assembled.

Boeing announced the 737 MAX, a derivative of the current 737 narrow-body airplane, in August. It will have new engines to improve fuel efficiency and compete with the Airbus A320 neo.

Boeing had not said, however, where the 737 MAX would be assembled. The state of Washington and its unions launched a campaign to retain it there.

Machinists union members in Wichita and the Puget Sound area will vote Wednesday on whether to ratify the agreement. Locally, members will vote from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. at the Machinists District Lodge 708 at 3830 S. Meridian.

Boeing has more than 80,000 employees in Washington, mostly at the Renton factory and the wide-body factory in Everett.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire commended Boeing and the union for an agreement that "shows a strong commitment by both sides to secure the future of aerospace in Washington state."

The tentative agreement calls for annual wage increases of 2 percent, cost-of-living adjustments, an incentive program intended to pay bonuses from 2 percent to 4 percent, a ratification bonus of $5,000 for each member and improvements in the pension program.

The proposed contract will secure thousands of jobs while raising Machinists’ pay and pensions, said International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District Lodge 751 President Tom Wroblewski.

"Hopefully it also signals the start of a new relationship that can both meet our members’ expectations for good jobs, while giving Boeing the stability and productivity it needs to succeed," Wroblewski said in a statement.

NLRB dispute

If the contract is ratified, it will end the NLRB lawsuit against Boeing, which alleged the company violated labor laws by opening a new production line for its 787 airplane in South Carolina.

The agency, acting on a complaint from the union, claimed Boeing was punishing Washington state workers for past strikes and wanted the company to return the work to Washington. Boeing denied the charges, saying it opened the South Carolina plant for valid economic reasons

Wroblewski, the Machinists president, said that if union members vote to approve the deal in the coming weeks, the union would inform the NLRB that it has no further grievances with Boeing.

Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University, said the union seems to have used the South Carolina dispute as leverage to guarantee other unionized jobs in the Seattle area, but on a different plane.

“I think the NLRB will be very happy to get this case off the table,” Chaison said. “This was probably the most controversial thing the NLRB has done in two or three decades.”

The case became a major political issue, with Republican presidential candidates using it to bash the Obama administration. While the labor board is an independent agency, it is dominated by appointees of President Obama, and settlement of the Boeing case removes a potentially damaging element for Obama in the 2012 campaign.

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