Ray Goforth, the assertive leader of 23,000 unionized technical staff at Boeing, has created a "different dynamic" in contract talks with the company.

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Ray Goforth was 12 when a road trip with his mother and younger sister brought an engine breakdown — and a vivid life lesson that measured a worker against an owner.

At an Oregon garage, his mom had only enough money to pay for the needed part, but not the labor to fix her truck.

When she asked to borrow tools so she could make the repair herself, the owner refused, leaving the family stranded.

That evening, as they prepared to spend the night in the truck, a sympathetic mechanic returned with his own tools, and worked with the mom to get the vehicle running again.

“Little things like that color your view of the world,” said Goforth. “The owner didn’t care. But this mechanic risked his job to come back and help. Who do you want to be?”

Today the 44-year-old Goforth is executive director of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), showing an assertive style as he leads the white-collar union in contract talks with Boeing on behalf of about 23,000 technical staff.

Last week, after months of bitter exchanges, the negotiations took a sharp turn toward conciliation. Both sides described the talks as productive, and as the company and union head into a new round of bargaining Wednesday, a strike now looks very unlikely.

Previously, company executives had portrayed Goforth as bringing a confrontational tone to both the private talks and the public rhetoric.

Unlike his longtime predecessor, he is neither a Boeing employee nor an engineer, but a lawyer and union organizer by training.

Mike Delaney, Boeing vice president of engineering, said previous SPEEA negotiations were “typically a group of geeky engineers talking to a group of geeky engineers.”

This time around, he said late last month, “it’s a different dynamic,” with Goforth polarizing the dispute at a union that historically has been more moderate than the strike-prone Machinists.

But those Boeing engineers most active in the union say they welcome Goforth’s willingness to confront what they see as aggressive and underhanded moves by the company.

“He’s very savvy to the way unions should operate,” said Dave Baine, a veteran engineer and SPEEA council rep. “He’s not going to stand by and be a pushover.”

In a vote earlier this month on Boeing’s initial contract offer, Goforth outmaneuvered the company to swing a 96 percent rejection.

Now he’s back in the room with Delaney, trying to hammer out an agreement that will keep Boeing assembly lines humming and his members happy.

Politics, labor tactics

As indicated by its name, SPEEA has traditionally been less an old-style trade union and more an association of high-income, middle-class professionals.

“The union membership is split pretty much down the middle between conservatives and progressives,” said Baine, who counts himself among the latter. “We try to stay out of politics. “

Goforth, hired by SPEEA in early 2008, is decidedly not politically neutral, any more than he looks like a nerdy engineer.

When he wears a suit, sporting his sharply trimmed beard, he could pass for a corporate lawyer. Around the office and at union rallies, he’ll add an edge of cool to a union polo shirt and jeans — one day, it was red Converse high-tops with a skull motif.

If Goforth looks, thinks and acts differently from previous SPEEA leaders, that’s because of his singular path to the job.

Though he’s smart — he says he’s a member of Mensa, the high-IQ society — he had little parental direction in his teenage years and had to push his way into college late at 23.

His father was a technical electronics specialist who learned his trade in the Navy, then worked for Hughes Electronics.

The household had a subscription to the trade magazine Aviation Week. Life was comfortable.

But after his parents divorced when he was 10, his dad left and Goforth’s youth in Southern California was marked by downward mobility.

He recalls “seeing this world of lots of wealth, without having access to it.”

At 18, suffering a severe asthma attack, he was turned away at a private hospital because he couldn’t pay.

“That’s a memory. Not being able to breathe and being told … ‘Best of luck to you,’ ” Goforth said

He said such experiences, like the truck-breakdown incident, “informed my sense of the world” and gave him “a consciousness of class disparities.”

He and his wife, Kim, studied political economy at The Evergreen State College. And through the 1990s, the couple produced an online newsletter focused on “progressive political organizing.”

They gave each of their three children the middle name “Justice.”

Union first

Goforth said he’s older and more pragmatic now, while remaining “largely progressive” in outlook.

Former SPEEA President Cynthia Cole, an active lifelong Republican, said Goforth “doesn’t wear his politics on his sleeve … The members come first.”

After earning a law degree at the University of Washington, Goforth worked for a decade at Professional and Technical Employees Local 17, a union representing local government engineers and other white-collar workers — a group as politically diverse as SPEEA.

“Ray is a realist and lives in the real world,” said Local 17 executive director Joe McGee. “You’ve got to read your members and where they are.”

Goforth insists that in the current talks, he read his members better than management did, a judgment that appears borne out by the initial vote.

Boeing finally gave the union its first complete offer Sept. 13, just a week ahead of the deadline for sending out mail-in ballots before the contract expired. The company expected to make further concessions before the vote.

But Goforth interpreted new language that Boeing inserted into the proposed contract as a threat to union rights. Dismissing the entire offer out of hand, he slammed the door on further talks until his members had voted on it.

To the chagrin of Boeing management, an offer it hadn’t intended to be voted on was defeated in a landslide.

Personality conflict

In a mid-August session at the Longacres headquarters of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Goforth grew impatient with a long exposition by Boeing’s negotiators laying out the business environment the company faces.

Boeing vice president Delaney recalls Goforth saying: “We don’t appreciate the Boeing lecture series. We don’t have to like each other. We don’t need a relationship. Just give us an offer.”

Delaney took offense, and says the Boeing team turned the lead in negotiations over to labor-relations staff from corporate headquarters in Chicago.

Goforth recalls an exchange of that nature. But he said the Boeing vice president shouldn’t personalize the issues.

He’d like to find an agreement that satisfies both sides, said Goforth, “but you don’t unilaterally disarm.”

Certainly, when he perceives management as stonewalling, Goforth can play hardball.

Last year, when SPEEA was in protracted contract talks with Boeing supplier Spirit Aerosystems in Wichita, Kan., Goforth threatened to mount a picket line to stop the trains coming out of Spirit that primarily deliver 737 fuselages to Renton.

Blocking them could have shut down production in Boeing’s Puget Sound factories, directly affecting his members here.

Goforth was willing to pay that price — but Spirit settled first.

In the Boeing contract talks, management sees Goforth’s rhetoric as inflammatory and overreaching.

He told his members Boeing had painted their benefits as too high by using comparative data that included companies such as low-wage, low-benefit Walmart.

Boeing flatly denies using Walmart as a comparison point.

Goforth also accused Boeing of “outsourcing” some 737 MAX work to Boeing’s facility in Long Beach, Calif., even though the corresponding work on the current 737 NG airplane is done by Goodrich, which means the work is being brought in-house for the MAX, the opposite of outsourcing.

Contract possible

But with agreement apparently within reach, the rhetoric has cooled.

In his 10 years at Local 17, where local government workers have limited legal scope to strike, Goforth never led a work stoppage.

SPEEA itself has had just one significant strike, in 2000 — an anomaly that older engineers blame on the cultural shift and the push for cost-cutting that followed the merger with McDonnell Douglas.

This time around, despite all the earlier rhetoric, it looks like Goforth will avoid such a destructive test of wills.

“The strategies we used have now brought us to a place where we’ll have some reasonable negotiations,” Goforth said.

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