Doug Kight, Boeing's top labor negotiator at crucial contract talks with the Machinists union, wants to end the bad blood but faces a skeptical workforce that feels shorted in two previous contracts.

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Rushing from his office at Boeing Commercial Airplanes headquarters in Longacres recently, Boeing Vice President Doug Kight headed to the Renton assembly plant for an hourlong town-hall meeting with employees, mostly Machinists eager for the company to offer them generous contract terms.

“They are going to let me have it,” said Kight. “You’ve got to be out connecting with people to understand where their heartbeat is.”

In charge of labor relations at the commercial-airplane division since 2006, Kight said he’s well aware of the residual anger among workers that is a legacy of the last decade’s layoffs.

More than 50,000 Boeing workers in the state lost their jobs between 1998 and 2004. And, then there was the threat in 2003 to build the 787 Dreamliner somewhere else and the outsourcing of work overseas.

“It’s deeper than 10 years,” said Kight of the bad blood between the Machinists and the company. “On many occasions, as I’ve met face to face [with employees], those feelings have been made known to me.”

Employees “believe we’re trying to take things away or get them,” said Kight. “Or else why the [union bargaining] slogan — ‘It’s Our Time This Time’ — implying that it hasn’t been in the past and it won’t be in the future.

“If we are going to continue in this vein, of every three years butting heads and trying to extract from each other whatever we can get, that’s going to challenge our ability to succeed long term,” Kight said. “Because [aerospace manufacturing] is changing. There’ll be new entrants into the business. And Airbus will be relentless in pursuit of the market.

“We have to come together,” Kight said. “We’ve got a huge bridge to build and cross.”

Kight, 51, lives in Shoreline. His personable style is that of the quiet listener and earnest persuader.

He grew up in Central Washington, the son of a small-town lawyer in Ephrata and after seventh grade in Wenatchee.

Out of law school in San Francisco, he worked at a law firm representing corporate clients including Bechtel and Kaiser Aluminum. He represented Bechtel in litigation arising from the 1982 bond failure of the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) nuclear plants.

In 1985, Kight returned to Wenatchee and joined his dad’s law firm but found the scattershot diversity of small-town lawyering didn’t suit his style of dogged legal preparation. He decided to specialize and joined Boeing as a labor lawyer.

Father’s principles

Yet despite the stark difference with his father’s practice — representing the company’s interest versus representing anyone who came through the door with a valid claim of injustice — Kight believes he hasn’t strayed from his dad’s basic principles.

Kight said he has at times looked into an individual’s claim against Boeing, then backed it internally. He cited the case of someone rejected for employment on the basis of a dubious drug-test result; he got the person hired rather than fighting a court case.

“I don’t want to waste the corporation’s money defending a lawsuit that can’t be defended,” he said. “I like to think I can be objective and fair. … I inherited from my dad a look at how people are being treated.”

After 20 years as a labor lawyer, Kight became vice president of human resources.

This is his first labor negotiation in the lead role, but Kight was on Boeing’s team in contract talks that led to two strikes: in 2000 with the white-collar engineering union, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, and in 2005 in the last round with the Machinists.

In the case of the SPEEA strike, Kight said that with hindsight the company’s mistakes are clear.

The contract talks came after the big mergers of the late 1990s, including the absorption of McDonnell Douglas, and Boeing tried to rationalize pay, benefits and job classifications in the diverse units.

“We were trying to negotiate way too many big-ticket items,” Kight said. “We didn’t do a good job of listening and responding to [SPEEA member] concerns and ended up with a train wreck.”

“You learn from that kind of crucible,” he said.

Then with the Machinists union in 2005, he said, Boeing corporate in Chicago and Boeing execs in Seattle sent out conflicting signals.

“The union was getting whispered in each ear,” Kight said, citing this as another lesson learned.

“That will change,” he said. This year, he’s had a number of interactions with Boeing Chairman and CEO Jim McNerney as well as his local boss, commercial-airplanes CEO Scott Carson, to try to keep everyone in sync.

So what’s his strategy for building that bridge across the chasm to the International Association of Machinists?

One thing the company has done differently is to directly communicate to employees details of each of its proposals as they’ve emerged over the summer, via a company Web site and blog and the media.

But Kight denies the union suspicion that this is a “34 percent” strategy — i.e. trying to talk over the heads of the union leadership to the employees and sway just enough of them to avoid the two-thirds majority vote needed to stage a strike.

This was the outcome in 2002, when 62 percent of IAM members rejected the contract but had to accept it anyway because only 61 percent voted to strike.

But Boeing believes that forcing workers in 2002 to accept a contract they didn’t like just made a strike in 2005 almost inevitable.

“It was an undesirable outcome in 2002 and would be this year as well,” said Kight.

Instead, he said, he wants to engage the work force and the unions so they understand “the way the business is headed, its challenges, its risks, its opportunities.”

He has met with Machinists union district President Tom Wroblewski at least twice a month for much of this year, more frequently this summer.

He also has regular meetings with SPEEA officials. The contract with the engineering union expires Dec. 1.

Region still the heart

In terms of opportunity, he sees the airplane-building business as still healthy and the Puget Sound region still at the center of Boeing’s operation despite the globalization of the supply chain.

“The great work done, for example, on the 737 and 777 moving lines has left a great impression on our leaders,” Kight said. “I don’t see this mass exodus of outsourcing. … We’ve been adding engineering as fast as we can. We can’t find them.”

As for the challenges, reining in health-care and pension costs is high among Boeing’s priorities. “Those financial challenges aren’t going to go away,” Kight said. “They are getting more acute.”

A strike now, he argued, would hurt both sides.

“We all have to ask just how long will customers continue to tolerate disruptions to their fragile businesses every three years,” Kight said. “Not long, I suspect.”

“Customers need those airplanes on time. We have airlines that have bet their whole businesses on Boeing,” he said. “The only way any of us have jobs here is if we have customers who want our products.”

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