One of the Puget Sound area's longest-running dramas resumes tomorrow when negotiators from Boeing and the Machinists union check into SeaTac's...

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One of the Puget Sound area’s longest-running dramas resumes tomorrow when negotiators from Boeing and the Machinists union check into SeaTac’s DoubleTree Hotel for two weeks of talks on a new labor agreement.

So far, however, the principals in this year’s production are not following the traditional script.

Rather than making angry threats and drawing lines in the sand, both sides have said virtually nothing since formal negotiations began June 10.

On the few occasions when they have spoken publicly, each side has been respectful and downright deferential toward the other.

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“We’re optimistic and businesslike,” said Charles Bickers, a Boeing spokesman. “We’re working together well.”

“It is very, very quiet,” said Connie Kelliher, spokeswoman for the International Association of Machinists, District 751. “They’re really focusing on doing the work at the bargaining table.”

Still, a lot can happen before the union’s rank-and-file votes on Boeing’s best-and-final offer Sept. 1.

Union leaders gave their initial wish list to Boeing in June. They are still waiting for written counteroffers. How members react to specific proposals that emerge from the meetings will go a long way toward determining whether things get ugly as talks heat up.

Information on the talks

Boeing negotiations Web site

www.boeing.com/special/negotiations/

Boeing negotiations call center

877-225-2186

Machinists negotiations Web site

www.iam751.org/contract2005/

At this point, most observers say no news is good news — rather than the calm before the storm. Among Wall Street analysts and aviation-industry experts, few expect a strike that could disrupt Boeing’s resurgent order and delivery outlook.

Strike barely averted in ’02

The Machinists union at Boeing has lost considerable heft over the past 15 years. It represents 18,300 production and assembly workers, including 16,500 in the company’s Puget Sound-area plants (it also represents 900 workers in Portland and 900 at military plants in Wichita, Kan.). That is less than half the 39,000 local Machinists represented in 1990.

The union’s latest hit came in June when Boeing completed the sale of its commercial-airplanes plant in Wichita, Kan., to Onex. The plant had roughly 8,000 workers, among them 4,400 Machinists.

Nonetheless, IAM District 751 is still Boeing’s largest union, and it has not been shy about going on strike if it does not like the benefits, pay and work rules Boeing puts on the table.

The Machinists have struck Boeing five times since 1948, most recently a 69-day walkout in 1995.

A sixth strike was narrowly averted in 2002. Sixty-two percent of Machinists rejected Boeing’s contract and 61 percent voted to go on strike; however, a two-thirds majority is necessary to authorize a strike.

Timeline for 2005 Machinists contract talks


Aug. 15 — Round-the-clock negotiations begin at the SeaTac DoubleTree Hotel.

Aug. 21 — Machinists union holds “Truth Rally” at the hotel and nearby Angle Lake.

Aug. 30 — Machinists distribute Boeing’s best-and-final contract offer to members.

Sept. 1 — Machinists vote on Boeing’s offer and whether to strike. A two-thirds majority is necessary

to approve a strike. Polls are open from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Sept. 2 — Current contract expires at 12:01 a.m.

Priority items for Machinists


Pensions

Health care

Job security

Source: International Association of Machinists

Consequently, Boeing’s offer went into force against the wishes of union leaders and most members.

“The battle has only just begun,” Dick Schneider, the Washington, D.C.-based coordinator of all of the IAM’s aerospace unions, said at the time.

“We will be back,” vowed District 751 President Mark Blondin.

Priorities are familiar

Indeed, this year’s hot topics will be familiar to anyone who followed the 2002 talks.

Pensions again are the Machinists’ top priority, followed by health care and job security.

Heading into the 2002 talks, Blondin told The Seattle Times, pensions are “a real strike issue.” Blondin has not used the “s” word this year, but pensions have risen in importance as Machinists’ average age has risen from 47 years old in 2002 to 51 years old today.

Retiring Machinists now get $60 per month for each year of service, up from $50 per month under the 1999 contract. The union initially asked for $120 per month, a 140 percent increase, in 2002. This year’s targets have not been divulged but likely are more realistic.

Boeing fact sheets and comments from senior executives stress that pensions are just one part of Boeing’s retirement programs for workers, which also include a 401(k) plan with a company matching policy.

“Retirement is a shared responsibility,” Rick Stephens, senior vice president of internal services, said in Boeing’s Frontiers magazine this month. “The savings and pension plans, along with employees’ personal savings and Social Security, provide ways to plan for the future.”

Soaring health-care costs are another familiar priority. Boeing’s outlays for employees’ health care have risen 30 percent since 2002, Bickers said, reaching $1.7 billion in 2004.

Blondin and others have warned Boeing not to simply shift this burden to employees. But the union has also sounded a conciliatory tone by acknowledging the company and Machinists must work together to control the problem.

“We understand that health-care costs are going up,” says a Machinists position paper. “Our proposal focuses on controlling out-of-pocket costs by looking at all alternative plans and options.”

Job security is the union’s third big issue, and probably the most difficult on which to win assurances.

Three years ago the Machinists asked Boeing to guarantee a set number of jobs per airplane produced. The company refused. In the face of stiff price competition from Airbus and a 50 percent drop in production after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the company’s lead negotiator in the talks, Jerry Calhoun, said the company must continually improve its efficiency and build more planes using fewer people if it wants to remain viable.

Blondin hasn’t repeated calls for ratios this time around. Instead, the union has established a subcontracting subcommittee that is seeking to establish tighter rules about how and why Boeing shifts work to external suppliers.

New lead negotiator

It is not clear when Boeing and the Machinists will break the cone of silence surrounding the talks. But the calm is sure to extend longer than in 2002.

Then, the two sides held a joint news conference the morning they entered the DoubleTree and expressed hopes for constructive discussions. Eight hours later, angry Machinists declared an impasse and asked a federal mediator to get involved because the two sides were so far apart.

On the eve of the contract vote, Schneider, the union leader from D.C., pronounced Boeing’s best-and-final offer a “job-killing, money-stealing, retiree-mugging offer,” and urged members to reject it.

Schneider will have a lower profile this time. He remains part of the main-table negotiating team, but Blondin will be the union’s lead negotiator.

“Puget Sound is the lion’s share of the contract, and Mark is the president [of District 751], so it just made sense,” Kelliher said.

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com

Happier times
Boeing was cutting 30,000 jobs the last time it negotiated a new contract with its largest union. But it’s recalled nearly 3,600 Machinists since May 2004, most of them in the Puget Sound area, thanks to renewed prosperity in the airline industry.
Boeing Employment August 2002 Change vs. year ago August 2005 Change vs year ago
Commercial Airplanes unit 69,200 -23,600 47,951* -5,525*
Washington state 64,000 -16,000 59,710 +6,714
Machinists union 25,600 NA 18,300 -1,400*
*BCA cut around 8,000 jobs, including 4,400 Machinists, when it sold a Wichita, Kan., plant to Onex Corp. Excluding Wichita, BCA has added roughly 2,500 jobs in the past year.
Source: Boeing