Leaders of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), the union representing Boeing engineers and other technical workers, have reached a tentative agreement with the aerospace giant for a six-year extension of the current contract, both sides announced Wednesday.
The surprise news comes more than 10 months before the current contract expires. If SPEEA members approve the deal in balloting that ends in early February, both Boeing and the union will have avoided a repeat of the last round of public and contentious contract talks in 2013.
Under terms of the tentative agreement, all SPEEA members would see what the union calls a "soft freeze" in their pension benefits. That means workers' pensions won't stop growing entirely, but in 2019, they will stop accruing benefits based on how long they've worked for the company.
Boeing, which has moved roughly 3,500 positions out of Washington in the last two years, would not commit to ending the job relocations.
But under terms of Wednesday's deal, Boeing would give the union more notice — 120 days, compared to the statutory 60 — for any job relocations that might cause layoffs. If employees couldn't be given new jobs, Boeing would pay an increased amount of severance under the terms of the tentative agreement.
SPEEA Executive Director Ray Goforth was cautiously optimistic the trickle of Boeing jobs out of Washington state might slow down.
“This deal, if the members approve it, will make it less likely that the company will move jobs out of state," Goforth said, also noting that the deal calls for a compensation package that he said would give Boeing management more predictability in its year-to-year costs.
"But," Goforth added, "they could still do it. SPEEA’s position that the legislature should … ratchet down its [aerospace tax] subsidies if jobs are moved out of state hasn’t changed."
Indeed, neither side painted the deal as a cure-all for the disagreements between Boeing and the union, which represents more than 21,000 white-collar workers. But the two sides wanted to avoid the acrimony involved with the 2013 negotiations, in which the union essentially conceded to a phase-out of pension benefits for new hires.
"It was contentious," said Todd Zarfos, vice president of Boeing's Washington state design center, said of those 2013 talks.
"We were both committed to doing better to help that relationship and ultimately come up with an agreement that was going to be respectful to our employees," Zarfos added.
Aviation analyst Scott Hamilton said this could signal a new era for the company under new CEO Dennis Muilenberg.
“It’s something that at least at first blush is a sign that Boeing and the labor unions are going to work together," Hamilton said. "My gosh, what a concept.”