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Boeing engineers file labor complaint; talks off to a rough start

Boeing plane.jpg
Andrew W. Sieber

The union representing Boeing engineers and technicians has filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the company, charging that Boeing is trying to muzzle its union members as contract negotiations heat up.

The complaint filed yesterday with the National Labor Relations Board in Seattle says Boeing has threatened union members with discipline if they speak to each other about wages, hours and working conditions.

Boeing spokesman Tim Healy said the company hadn't yet seen the complaint, but he disputed the union's claim, saying no one from Boeing told employees not to discuss working conditions or wages with each other.

The complaint shows how relations are starting to fray between the union, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, and Boeing.

Short-lived peace with unions?

The tensions come after talk last year of a new era of peace between Boeing and its unions, after the company reached a landmark agreement with a different group – the machinists who assemble the planes.

While the engineers and technicians are known for having more peaceful relations with Boeing management than the machinists, they did go on strike for 40 days in 2000.

The union began weekly talks with Boeing management in June to come up with a new contract to replace the one that expires Oct. 6. The union represents more than 23,000 employees in the Puget Sound region.

Insurance, retirement are issues 

Ray Goforth is executive director of SPEEA. He says he’s disappointed with the talks so far because the union has put forward a proposal, but Boeing has yet to give a counter-proposal.

Goforth added that Boeing has indicated it wants employees to shoulder a greater cost of their health insurance. Boeing also wants new employees to move to a 401(k)-type retirement plan instead of a pension.

He says the company is using the backdrop of a struggling economy to justify cuts when Boeing itself is doing very well. He points to the fact that Boeing recently boosted its dividend to shareholders, reflecting higher profits.

“This is a company that’s fabulously profitable and rewarding all the stakeholders except the employees who generate that profit,” Goforth said.

Boeing’s Tim Healy says talks are actually ahead of schedule because in the past, the two sides would just hole up in a hotel for the final two weeks before the contract expired to hammer out a new agreement. This time they started meeting earlier.

He says the company is asking employees to shoulder a bigger portion of health care costs, as expenses rise, in order for the company to stay competitive.

“In terms of negotiations, we want to make sure that we’re rewarding our engineers and technical workforce for the work that they’ve done and the contribution they’ve made,” Healy said. “But at the same time, we have to make sure we’re competitive going forward.”

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.
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