A vote to decide if a small group of Boeing safety and flight-training pilots in the Seattle area will leave their union has been postponed, pending an investigation into a union charge that Boeing violated labor laws and manipulated its members.
In an email Friday, the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) said the case will be held “in abeyance” while it investigates an unfair-labor-practice charge filed by Boeing’s white-collar union, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA).
This is the second contentious effort among Boeing pilots to oust the union. It follows a 2016 decertification drive that involved Mark Forkner and Patrik Gustavsson, pilots whose exchanges regarding the 737 MAX provoked widespread outrage when revealed recently.
Although about 20 out of the group of 29 pilots signed a petition for a vote to get rid of the union, SPEEA alleges the process has been tainted by management actions.
It charges that Boeing offered large pay raises only to nonunion pilots late last year, and promised a 25% pay raise to the union pilots if they decertify.
Boeing denies that. Company spokesman Paul Bergman said the petition to leave the union “was not initiated, requested or encouraged by Boeing management.”
This group of technical and safety pilots work on developing training materials and qualifying simulators for airline pilots. It was unionized by SPEEA only in 2012.
The union also alleges that the bargaining unit has dwindled because Boeing has taken work away from the group — first by eliminating 38 jobs when it transferred Boeing’s flight-simulator-training facilities from the Puget Sound region to Miami in 2013, and then by hiring nonunion contract pilots to fill jobs anytime union pilots left.
The union charges also that the group’s safety pilots, who would normally participate in air-accident investigations to determine if the pilots flying the plane had followed procedures, were excluded from the two 737 MAX crash investigations.
Ray Goforth, executive director of SPEEA, said he expects to testify next week in an NLRB hearing to consider the union’s charges.
The previous unsuccessful drive to decertify the union in 2016 was formally filed by Gustavsson and supported by Forkner, among others. Forkner was then 737 chief technical pilot. When Forkner left Boeing in 2018, Gustavsson replaced him as 737 chief technical pilot.
Their exchanges related to early development of the 737 MAX were revealed in two troves of documents released in October and last week. The conversations included crude, derogatory banter about air-safety-authority officials, Boeing airline customers and colleagues within Boeing.
They also laid out more serious revelations. For example, more than a year before the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in 2018, Forkner pushed hard to dissuade the airline and the Indonesian air-safety regulator from requiring their pilots to have simulator training on the MAX before flying it. He convinced Lion Air that only a short computer course was needed.
That work features in SPEEA’s charges against Boeing. Goforth said that Boeing rewarded anti-union activists, including Forkner and Gustavsson, with “unwarranted promotions” that included significant pay raises.
Forkner now flies for Southwest Airlines. Gustavsson is still at Boeing but no longer in the union. Neither pilot responded to messages asking for comment.
Goforth said he’s heard the core issue for the current SPEEA pilots is the lack of a pay raise. The union has given management a contract proposal including a salary hike but hasn’t yet had a response.
He said the SPEEA pilots “have been watching their bargaining unit whittle away and lose work. I can understand their frustration.”
The pilots at the center of this dispute will play a key role when the 737 MAX returns to service.
Boeing has switched its position to recommend full-flight simulator training for airline pilots before they fly the MAX again. Many airlines will need Boeing’s help to put their pilots through such a training regimen. In addition, Boeing will need a large number of both instructor pilots and pilots able to conduct flight tests and fly customer-demo flights.