As Boeing and striking Machinists return to the bargaining table, the company's engineers represented by SPEEA weigh their options, including whether to strike.

In a Boeing cafeteria near the Everett assembly factory, a lunchtime crowd of about 100 white-collar engineers and technical employees gathered last Wednesday to fire questions at their union representatives.

Peppering their comments with contemptuous references to management, members of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) discussed the possibility of an event rare in Boeing history: a white-collar strike.

In the midst of the current Machinists strike, these techies wearing red solidarity T-shirts debated the practicalities of staging another Boeing strike early in 2009.

What’s their medical coverage while on strike? Would they walk out even if the Machinists are still out on strike? Could Boeing’s nonunion contract engineers keep the place running if they struck?

“If we go out, we basically shut down the company,” said Dave Patzwald, negotiating-team chair for the union’s engineering unit, responding to that last question.

As the Machinists returned to the bargaining table over the weekend, five weeks into a strike that has stopped jet production and already cost Boeing an estimated $1.3 billion in net profits, next up for the company is bargaining with SPEEA.

In just over two weeks, SPEEA officials begin full-time contract talks with Boeing management at the SeaTac Doubletree Inn. The membership will vote on the new contract — and a possible strike — in mid-November.

The white-collar union represents about 14,000 engineers and 7,000 technical staff members mostly in the Puget Sound region, with a few hundred in Oregon, Utah and California. Only a simple-majority vote is required to authorize a strike.

Boeing engineers earn on average almost $89,000 a year in base salary, and technical staff average about $67,000. Aside from a token, one-day stoppage in 1993, SPEEA professionals have struck the company only once, for 40 days in 2000.

Yet it’s clear from the mood at the union meeting in Boeing’s Harbour Pointe building that this year, despite the free fall in the general economy that is spreading anxiety in workplaces across America, Boeing’s technical staff won’t settle easily with the company.

The way SPEEA officials describe Boeing’s bargaining stance echoes the language of the Machinist union leaders during their standoff with the company.

SPEEA’s new executive director, Ray Goforth, told the meeting that preliminary discussions suggest Boeing will offer a compensation increase wrapped around a series of benefit “take-aways.”

“It’s not looking pretty,” said Goforth. “Boeing is an island of prosperity in a global economy that’s experiencing great difficulties right now. … There’s no reason at all why the Boeing Company should be seeking take-aways.”

Goforth said that in preliminary talks, Boeing hasn’t engaged in a substantive discussion. Signaling the union’s dissatisfaction, he said that once full-time negotiations begin, SPEEA will insist that top Boeing negotiators hash out every last contract detail in main-table bargaining sessions, rather than relegating the minutiae to subcommittees.

He said he’s been getting calls from Wall Street analysts surprised and dismayed to hear the rumblings of a professional-staff strike.

“Just the fact that SPEEA is even contemplating this, they are seeing as a sign of management failure,” said Goforth.

Last month, SPEEA gave Boeing an initial contract proposal with an opening bid of 10 percent wage increases every year of the three-year contract. In a response to outsourcing, the proposal also asked for “controls on the use of all non-Boeing labor.”

Boeing spokeswoman Karen Fincutter said the company continues to negotiate with SPEEA, though it won’t make specific contract proposals until the main-table talks begin.

“We’re working hard to understand the union’s priorities,” she said.

Around Puget Sound, SPEEA-represented employees design, engineer and integrate new aircraft and military systems. They sign off on the airworthiness of every jet that leaves local factories, and they test and validate everything from the factory production equipment to the fuel that’s used on flight tests.

Most staff members at Harbour Pointe are in the Commercial Aviation Services group and work on modifications or freighter conversions of older jets for airline customers.

If SPEEA strikes, not only production work but most such after-sales activity would also stop, shrinking Boeing’s revenue on the commercial side to almost zero.

In the Harbour Pointe cafeteria, the questions came laced with scathing asides about Boeing’s executive leadership — references to their stratospheric salaries and perceived strategic blunders, such as massive outsourcing of the 787 Dreamliner work and resultant delays to that program.

Patzwald drew laughter with a jokey moment of engineer’s hubris, warning that management “should never pick a fight with people who are smarter than them.”

The union officials made clear that if a strike happens it will come in January or February 2009 — starting at the beginning of the month, to retain medical insurance for the first weeks — and only after the Machinists strike is settled.

As long as the Machinists are out, “we will continue to negotiate and draw wages,” said Larry Marrell, of the SPEEA negotiating team. “There’s no real leverage for us to go out on the street at the same time.”

As the meeting dispersed, one 28-year Boeing technical veteran, who asked not to be identified, said he hopes a strike can be avoided in the face of the current financial-markets’ meltdown.

“A lot of people are worried about their job,” he said. “Because of the economy and rising prices, it would be tough.”

Still, he said, “I’ve prepared for being on strike.”

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com