Sunday, November 2, 2008

Boeing Deal: Expect a Close Vote

Boeing Deal: Expect a Close Vote

For some workers at Boeing (BA), 56 days on the picket line is not enough. As 27,000 machinists prepare to vote Nov. 1 on a contract that could get them back on the job by Nov. 3, signs are emerging that the vote could be close. It's no sure thing that the deal will pass, some workers say. "The contract is a lukewarm, Band-Aid version of the first one we got," says 21-year Boeing mechanic Russell Wise, who plans to vote against the tentative settlement. "People are unhappy about that."

Under pressure from Washington, Boeing and the leaders of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers came to terms on the tentative settlement Oct. 28 (, 10/28/08). They had reconvened talks in the nation's capital under the guidance of the federal mediation service and hammered out a deal after five days of intense talks. Both the company and union leaders praised the proposed pact, with IAM District 751 President Tom Wroblewski saying, "we won the battle and made some significant gains."

The union leaders point to better terms than the company initially offered on medical benefits, pensions, and higher wages for new hires, as well as stronger language on job security for more than 5,000 employees. Under the proposed contract, wages would rise 5% in the first year, 3% in each of the next two years, and 4% in the final year. The addition of a fourth year, backers say, would give members more security than the ordinary three-year contracting cycle.

Dreamliner Outsourcing Is Maintained

For their part, company officials were happy to preserve their freedom to outsource as much work as they'd like on the forthcoming 787 jet, the Dreamliner, which will be a mainstay of Boeing's future. The company also preserved its ability to use subcontractors, in controlled circumstances, on construction of its other planes. Still, a top Boeing official, Vice-President of Engineering Michael Denton, said in an interview posted on a company Web site that Boeing will reduce the amount of outsourced work for future models, citing the delays and other difficulties experienced on the 787 program.

Critics say the pact isn't generous enough—or fair enough to all employees—to make it fly. Boeing, they say, is in its healthiest shape in years, with a huge order backlog, and should share more of its wealth with workers. Don Grinde, a 31-year crane operator, objects that janitors in the factories, who he says earn as little as $8.75 an hour, are denied hikes in their starting pay, and he warns they eventually could be replaced by contract workers. He is bothered, too, that it takes as long as six years for some workers to rise from such modest pay levels to top rates.

Grinde runs a Web site, 751 Rank and File Voices, where he details pros and cons of the contract. He also polls readers on attitudes toward the deal. As of the afternoon of Oct. 31, the sentiment was running about 53% against the deal, with some 959 readers registering their views.

Will a Silent Majority Vote Yes?

Such Web polls are hardly scientific, since they may draw only the most motivated voters and miss the undecided who lean one way or the other. Indeed, company officials are hoping a "silent majority" of backers will turn out to endorse the pact. But Grinde claims his poll was fairly accurate in tracking sentiment before the Sept. 6 walkout, where some 87% of the IAM members backed the stoppage. He says his poll at the time showed some 83% support for a strike.

IAM officials expect the contract proposal to pass, but they will be ready to bargain anew if it is shot down. The last time members turned down a contract that leaders had recommended was in 1995, union spokeswoman Connie Kelliher says. Before the current walkout, union leaders were booed in meetings for delaying the shutdown for a couple of days past the strike vote, as they tried to keep talks moving.

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