Girding for a fierce contract battle this fall, members of the Machinists union who work at Boeing voted today to authorize a strike if...

Share story

Girding for a fierce contract battle this fall, members of the Machinists union who work at Boeing voted today to authorize a strike if negotiations with the company break down. The margin of victory is not yet known but is expected to be in the 90 percent range.

The vote, which required a two-thirds majority for approval, does not mean that a strike will occur or is likely. But it gives union leaders clout at the bargaining table by demonstrating workers’ willingness to strike. An actual strike would require another two-thirds vote.

Negotiations for the contract, which expires in September, began in May. The contract covers 27,000 workers, 25,000 of them in the Puget Sound region.

Chants of “strike” swept the fired-up crowd of an estimated 14,000 in KeyArena. Union members and leaders said they would make big demands of Boeing and, unlike in recent negotiations, had the leverage to secure them.

“The fact is, it’s no secret, we are in the strongest bargaining position we have been in years, and we intend to leverage that position,” said Tom Wroblewski, president of the union’s Washington district. In his 20-minute speech, he repeated the event’s catchphrase, “It’s our time this time,” at least 21 times.

Boeing is being pressured by an order backlog of more than $340 billion and an already delayed 787 delivery. The 787 Dreamliner’s first flight is scheduled before year-end.

Union leaders are hoping that on this tight production schedule, Boeing won’t be able to abide a strike, but, with soaring profits, could stand to make some concessions to workers.

“Hopefully Boeing can’t afford a strike,” said material handler David Raines, who has weathered two layoffs in his 20-year stint at Boeing. “Not that I want to strike,” he added, “that’s for sure.”

In 2005, the union struck for a month.

“We’re the ones out there building the planes, and we need to share more of the profits that Boeing makes,” said electrical technician Dennis Bolestridge.

Union members said whereas they barely held their ground in the last contract, both Boeing and the union are now on better footing. In the last round of negotiations three years ago, 8,000 members were on layoff. Since then, the union has added 6,000 members.

Employees said they wanted a larger slice of Boeing’s soaring profit — $1.2 billion last quarter.

Topping their wish list are cost-of-living-adjusted retirement benefits, expanded medical coverage and a general wage increase.

Boeing’s Puget Sound plants were symbolically emptied today as workers flocked to KeyArena for the rally. The union requires them to work part of the day, but some said they were pressured by supervisors to work their entire shift if it did not coincide with the meeting.

Voting was delayed by traffic jams and parking shortages en route to Seattle Center. Many members did not arrive until after the speeches and waited in lines outside the arena for up to 30 minutes before they could cast their votes.

The final vote tally will be available after all the ballots are hand-counted in Seattle, Portland Wichita, Kans., and Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

Isaac Arnsdorf: 206-464-2397 or iarnsdorf@seattletimes.com