One strike down, one more big labor contract to go for Boeing

As thousands of striking Machinists grabbed headlines last month, Boeing Co.'s other big union quietly submitted its wish list for a new contract.

Engineers and technicians could have seized an opportunity to talk tough and tell Boeing to treat factory floor workers fairly or gear up for a bitter fight with their white-collar brethren.

But they didn't.

That doesn't mean the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace won't pressure Boeing to be generous with its wealth.

SPEEA leaders in Seattle, who meet Boeing at the bargaining table Nov. 1, say they'll ask for many of the same things Machinists got. Their highest priority: keeping a tight lid on health-care costs. They also want raises _ something the Machinists didn't ask for _ and a bump in pension pay.

With the new 787 jetliner and several other critical projects in development, they have plenty of bargaining power. And they're not shy about saying so.

"We have the most leverage of any work group at the Boeing Company on the bottom line. We design the process. We design the product. We determine the materials," Charles Bofferding, SPEEA's executive director, said in a recent interview at the union's headquarters south of Seattle.

The last time Boeing had to nail down contracts with its two biggest labor unions, the company was reeling from the economic aftershocks of the 2001, terrorist attacks. It was laying off some 40,000 employees in its commercial airplanes division,and its defense business was suffering, too.

It's in much better shape today. A sharp rise in commercial plane orders and brisk business on the military side have helped boost the company's profits and stock price.

Yet many airlines are far from rebounding from the downturn, which may turn out to be a bargaining chip in Boeing's favor.

"It's very tough to pass on higher costs to the nation's airlines," said Richard Aboulafia, an industry analyst with the Teal Group.

SPEEA represents about 22,000 engineers and technical workers in the Seattle area and Wichita. The average worker in the Puget Sound engineering unit makes about $82,000 (Ђ68,340) a year; technical workers average $63,000 (Ђ52,505) . Wichita employees average $80,000 (Ђ66,673) a year.

SPEEA argues those salaries are well below the industry average, in some cases just over half what comparable jobs at the high end of the market pay.

"We not only want to catch up to the market, we want to lead the market," Bofferding said. "We think that's appropriate and a true reflection of our contributions to the company."

Boeing spokeswoman Debbie Nomaguchi said the company is ready to take a close, hard look at all the numbers.

"We'll work with them to find the right balance in the market," she said. "We need to be able to attract and reward and retain highly skilled workers."

The union staged the only full-blown strike in its history five years ago, balking at Boeing's attempt to push through changes the union argued would have severely weakened workers' benefits.

In 2002, Machinists fell just shy of enough votes to strike and got stuck with the contract they had rejected. SPEEA opted to save the fight for another day and settled for a deal that included raises and a pension boost but increased workers' share of medical costs.

"Everybody remembers 2000. They don't remember 2002," Bofferding said. "We didn't once across the table say strike. We negotiated a contract that was arguably the best contract negotiated with Boeing management that year. Nobody noticed.", AP reported. V.A.

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