Spirit AeroSystems engineers’ approval of a new labor contract last week marks a milestone in Bob Brewer’s career.
The six-year agreement will likely be the last time Brewer will sit in negotiations before he retires.
Brewer is the Midwest director of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace in Wichita.
SPEEA represents about 3,500 Wichita employees in three units — engineers at Boeing Wichita and engineers and professional and technical workers at Spirit.
Brewer won’t retire for a few years. But with longer contracts in place at Spirit and with Boeing closing its doors next year in Wichita, it will be some time before the next rounds of talks take place.
In six years, Brewer will be 65.
“I’m hoping to retire prior to that age,” he said.
The only thing that could change his involvement in negotiations would be if Boeing’s closure stretches out into 2015 from 2014.
“If Boeing is still here in 2015, there will be some activity surrounding a new contract,” Brewer said.
Brewer grew up in Derby and graduated from Southwestern College in Winfield with a degree in manufacturing technology.
He spent two years in Army in the honor guard in Washington, D.C., where he was on the 21-gun salute team at Arlington Cemetery.
He began work at Boeing Wichita in 1973. He also worked at Boeing facilities in Mississippi, Louisiana and Montana.
During his years with Boeing, he held a variety of positions in the shop and in management.
“When I was in management, I was told by my senior managers that I wore too much of an employee hat,” Brewer said. But “the employees make the company successful. They’ve got a good standard of living, a good place to work. … A contact that covers their working conditions is of utmost importance.”
In 2001, he joined SPEEA as a contract administrator and became Midwest director in 2002.
Outside work, Brewer is an outdoor person. He and his wife, Lori, live on 40 acres outside Wichita.
Brewer likes to play golf, and he and his wife like to travel, hike and bike.
“We try to grab every piece of nature that we can,” Brewer said.
What have been some of the biggest changes you’ve seen over the years in union negotiations?
What drove a lot of the changes over the last 10 or 15 years is that we’ve had new players in the airplane market, particularly Airbus. … It put competition out there in a market that was only Boeing at one time. … You’ve got to take a look at what it takes to provide a good standard of living for employees, but you also have to find a balance between that and the company being able to be competitive. A few years ago, not so much. Boeing was the only company selling commercial airplanes.
How has that changed how you negotiate?
It’s a difficult balance. We have a huge research team and huge staff at SPEEA. We take all the data and talk to the company about every aspect. Everything’s included in a benefits compensation package. You find out where the market’s at and negotiate to that market. You always try to lead the market. You’re not always successful with that, particularly when working with two major companies, Boeing and Spirit.
Most recently, the length of union contracts has stretched out over many years instead of expiring every three years or so. Is that a good or bad thing?
It’s both. The downside is you really don’t know what the economy is going to do in the long term so you try to put protections in there. … The good thing is when you have market-related salaries, you know what those are going to be. You lock in medical costs, provide incentives.
What’s the biggest challenge facing unions today?
I think the most challenging aspect, which is still in place today, is the understanding of the importance of a union to middle-class working families. There’s been an ebb and flow over the years. There was a huge union movement; this subsided somewhat. There’s a growth again. Unions provide a great check and balance between families and the large corporations we deal with these days.
What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?
Probably the one thing people don’t know about me is that I’m not a real religious person, but I’m a very spiritual person. What you see is what you get from me — being forthright and honest and open in all my dealings, whether it be in my marriage, my relationship with employees and company executives. You try to be the very best person you can be in this life. Sometimes, that’s a challenge.