Boeing and the Machinists union broke off contract talks over how the company plans to automate delivery of airplane parts inside the factories, negotiators said.

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Boeing and Machinists union leaders gave widely diverging views Tuesday of the issue that caused two days of resumed talks to collapse, ensuring a continuation of the debilitating strike that has halted airplane assembly for more than five weeks.

The company’s top labor negotiator, Doug Kight, said the stumbling block was Boeing’s vision for eventually automating the way airplane parts are delivered to jet-production lines. He insisted the company was willing to do that with minimal impact on the current work force of about 2,000 inside the plants who receive, track and disperse those parts.

“Time cannot stand still,” said Kight. “It has nothing to do with the elimination of 2,000 jobs.”

But the union’s district president, Tom Wroblewski, rejected the notion his members are Luddites resisting automation. Instead, he said, the issue is Boeing’s desire to give this work to outside vendors.

“We’ve always dealt with technology and we will always grow with technology,” said Wroblewski. “But they didn’t want us to take that technology. They wanted to give the suppliers the ability to grow within the walls of the company, not us.”

Back in Seattle after the effort in Eastern Washington to end the strike deadlocked Monday, Kight said Boeing wants to introduce technology such as radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags — electronic chips containing tracking data — that can be placed on pallets so that the system automatically records when parts are brought in and moved around the plant.

“You don’t need people to do those things to enter [parts] into a system manually, to contact suppliers to reorder parts,” Kight said.

He said many manufacturers are ahead in such technologies.

Although this view of the future implies fewer people in the long run, Kight insisted current workers can be reassigned.

He said improvements in the last six years have resulted in 60 fewer parts-delivery jobs, and all those workers have been switched to other work.

“We’ve proven we have the ability to absorb within our work force those [employees] impacted by improvements in the [parts] delivery process,” Kight said. “We can continue to do that.”

“Freeze in place”

The talks broke down because the union wanted to “freeze in place” the roles played by Machinists today in delivering parts, he said.

Responding to Kight’s comments, Wroblewski recalled earlier times when parts tracking was handled on punched cards and workers climbed up and down ladders to store and retrieve items from racks of shelves.

All that has been transformed, he said, and Machinists have changed with the times. What the union objected to was the company’s desire to expand the work by outside vendors.

“Use our people to do it!” Wroblewski said vehemently.

He said the union offered concessions in the Sunday and Monday talks. While it had previously sought to roll back the process to what was done before 2002 — when suppliers could not be in the factory — the union offered to accept the status quo, which allows suppliers to deliver their materials to receiving areas inside factory doors.

He acknowledged Boeing offered to “make sure that anyone working right now in those receiving areas will not lose their jobs over the life of this agreement.”

Guarantees fall short

But Wroblewski said the job guarantees were inadequate.

“How can you guarantee jobs?” he asked rhetorically. “If the bottom fell out [of the business], they’d lay those 2,000 people off.

“What we are looking for are guarantees that no one else is going to come in and take our jobs.

“Those are union jobs,” said Wroblewski. “This is union busting.”

Both Kight and Wroblewski said talks can resume when federal mediators get a sense progress is possible.

But Kight said that even if this parts-delivery issue can be resolved, he doesn’t know how close the two sides will be to a final agreement.

He complained that every time management addressed the union’s list of issues, the union added more demands next time they got together.

“The goal posts kept moving,” Kight said. “I honestly can’t tell you how many issues the union still has in their mind.”

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or