Almost 11,000 Boeing Machinists put down their tools to attend a union rally at Safeco Field yesterday morning, a show of strength and unity...

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Almost 11,000 Boeing Machinists put down their tools to attend a union rally at Safeco Field yesterday morning, a show of strength and unity to back up the labor negotiators currently talking to the company behind closed doors.

In a crowd with predominantly graying hair — the average age is 49, and 20-plus years of seniority is typical — the biggest concerns were retirement benefits and health-care costs.

“Retirement is the issue,” said Brian Pankratz, an inspector at the Frederickson, Pierce County, plant. He stressed the need to keep down medical expenses and to provide cost-of-living increases for retirees “so we don’t live on a fixed income.”

His colleague Ken Welsh, also from Frederickson, said the International Association of Machinists (IAM) focus should be to maintain the good wages and excellent benefits the union has traditionally provided.

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“We want to keep what we’ve got,” Welsh said.

Three years ago, the last IAM contract talks turned ugly when the union rejected the company’s final offer. Union members narrowly failed to muster the 60 percent majority needed to strike, in a vote heavily influenced by the aviation-industry downturn.

This year’s contract negotiations take place in a much-improved business environment with Boeing on the upswing. The company has recalled 2,700 IAM members this year, bringing the membership in the Puget Sound area to about 16,500.

The union has given the company its initial proposal, and talks opened June 10. “Around-the-clock” negotiations begin Aug. 15 in a SeaTac hotel. If no agreement is reached by midnight Sept. 1, the union will vote on the company’s final offer and will also vote on whether to strike if it’s rejected.

After the rally yesterday, the union held an early procedural vote required to authorize strike funds should they be needed. Unsurprisingly, the authorization — which offers no indication of the likelihood of a strike — passed with a 98.5 percent majority.

But the main purpose was a show of force and solidarity. Many in the crowd wore black T-shirts and caps with the union’s “Do the Right Thing” negotiating slogan, and all wore red rubber wristbands engraved with that message.

After the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem, the Rev. Lem Charleston, who is also a union shop steward, led the crowd in an opening prayer that asked for “a decent and honorable outcome” to the contract talks.

Mark Blondin, district president of IAM local lodge 751, and Tom Buffenbarger, the union’s national leader, made rousing speeches.

“Collective strength has allowed us to maintain the very best aerospace contract in the United States,” Blondin said. “You have it because you’ve earned it.”

Blondin identified pensions as the top issue, followed by health care and job security. The union wants annual cost-of-living increases in retiree pensions, the elimination of penalties for early retirement, and acceptance of a supplemental union-pension plan. He said it is unacceptable for the company to simply pass on to workers the steep increases in health-care costs.

Blondin said the contract matters “not just for our membership but for the community,” and sets the bar for working-family jobs in Puget Sound region.

Speaking after the rally, Buffenbarger, who leads some 750,000 members, criticized Boeing’s outsourcing of work, a hot issue in the last contract. “When Boeing tells us they have a 10-year backlog” of airplanes, he said, ” our question is, ‘For who? Us or the Chinese?’ I want to hear about a 10-year backlog for the U.S.A.”

Outsourcing was also on the minds of many at the rally.

Travis Anderson, who works in the Everett plant but not directly on airplane production, feels a threat from Boeing’s outsourcing of noncore work such as the servicing of plant vehicles and equipment, janitorial services and building maintenance.

“If you don’t put your hand on an airplane, you could be at risk,” Anderson said.

After the rally, Blondin said talks are going well and “the mood with the company is pretty good.”

That is also the company’s public position. And more privately, chief Boeing negotiator Vice President Jerry Calhoun has expressed the same sentiment.

Addressing a meeting of employees in Frederickson late last month, Calhoun said he was “encouraged by the tone” of the opening talks and praised Blondin’s positive approach, according to Dave Baine, a member of the engineers union, who attended the meeting.

“Last time I saw a lot of theater, posturing and rhetoric,” Calhoun told his audience, “I don’t see that this time.”

Calhoun expressed a “measured, quiet confidence” that a positive approach can be sustained at the bargaining table. But he warned against the expectation that in boom times the company may have more to give.

“The underlying principles and realities of the business are the same,” he told his listeners in Frederickson, citing the fierce competition with Airbus.

That’s not the way workers interviewed at the rally saw it.

Buffenbarger said his members have recently lived through “the most terrible times in 30 years.”

“Their desire to get a good contract in these upward-swinging times is very strong,” he said.

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