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Updated Friday, February 22, 2013 at 06:10 PM

SPEEA polls Boeing tech workers on next step in talks

By Sanjay Bhatt
Seattle Times business reporter

The white-collar union at Boeing plans to send a survey to its technical workers Friday to learn what they must have to approve a contract.

“I wouldn’t say a strike is inevitable,” said Ray Goforth, executive director of the Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), which represents about 23,000 members, including about 7,400 techs.

The potential for a strike has been the subject of intense speculation since Tuesday’s rare split vote on Boeing’s “best and final” contract offer to SPEEA’s engineers and technical workers.

Just over half the engineers accepted Boeing’s offer, while a similar proportion of technical workers rejected it. Nearly two-thirds of the technical workers authorized a strike.

The risk of a strike goes up, Goforth said, if Boeing dismisses workers’ concerns when both sides return to the bargaining table, which could happen as early as next week. The union plans to wrap up the survey Wednesday.

“It’s really Boeing’s to lose right now,” Goforth said.

Scott Hamilton, an aviation consultant in Issaquah, said he has no way to gauge the odds of a strike until after Boeing and SPEEA return to the table. The technical workers tend to be more aggressive than the engineers in their relationship with Boeing, he said.

But the technical workers’ bargaining power is certainly weaker since Tuesday’s split vote, Hamilton said. SPEEA would have had a stronger position if both bargaining units rejected Boeing’s offer.

When the talks resume, Boeing could stand by its “best and final” offer, sweeten it or offer less, he said. Sweetening the offer — so that the techs wind up with a better deal than the engineers — could create a permanent divide between the two employee groups, Hamilton said.

“It’s going to be an interesting dynamic to see what transpires,” he said.

After working out other issues, Boeing and the union remain at loggerheads over pensions: The company wants to replace its traditional pension with a 401(k)-retirement plan for new hires, but the union says Boeing’s offer would mean a drastic reduction in retirement benefits for its future members.

The company says it has met the union on all its demands for new hires except for pensions, and that 24 of Boeing’s 42 different unionized bargaining units have accepted giving new hires a 401(k) plan instead of pensions.

Ray Conner, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said in a statement after Tuesday’s vote that “this offer leads the market in every way.”

Boeing’s offer to the techs calls for a 5 percent pool for annual raises. The actual amount an individual receives will vary.

The average Boeing technical worker makes about $81,000 a year, or $39 an hour.

Boeing estimates such a worker will see a $64,000 increase in pay — $49,000 in raises and overtime and $15,000 in incentive pay — over the four-year contract, not including medical and retirement benefits.

But that estimate is based on several assumptions: 208 hours of overtime a year, based on actual overtime in 2011, even though overtime varies widely; 5 percent annual raises, of which only 2 percent is guaranteed to everyone; and a target bonus of 10 days’ pay, which can be more or less depending on the company’s performance.

And the wide range in Boeing technical workers’ annual wages — from $38,000 to $140,000 — means the benefits vary drastically for individuals.

A technical worker at the lower limit could see about $30,000 in additional pay, while someone at the top of the scale could see $111,000 more.

Union officials say workers aren’t getting any “new” money under its offer because the proposed percentage increases are the same as the last contract. Moreover, Boeing’s assumptions are aggressive and aren’t indicative of what it’s actually paying workers, union officials said.

For example, while the previous contract provided for 5 percent annual raises, the actual average increase for Boeing techs last year was 2.8 percent due to higher-wage workers retiring and lower-wage workers being hired, according to SPEEA.

“Our members are very talented people who work in an industry that generates a tremendous amount of wealth,” Goforth said. “The Boeing Co. is making record profits. These are the people who generate those record profits and they should be compensated accordingly.”

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com On Twitter @sbhatt


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