Machinists strike Boeing; company to halt commercial plane production

Monday, August 22nd 2005, 9:52 am
By: News On 6

SEATTLE (AP) _ Machinists at Boeing Co. walked out on strike Friday, forcing the aerospace company to halt production of commercial airplanes after the two sides could not agree on a new labor contract.

The strike affects about 18,400 Machinists in the Seattle area, Wichita, Kan., and Gresham, Ore.

In Wichita, 20-year Boeing employee Sandi Wiley said she wasn't walking the picket line for herself but for her 8-year-old daughter, Leslie.

``You do it for the next generation,'' Wiley said. ``I am worried she will have a worse standard of living than I have.''

The Machinists, who assemble Boeing's commercial airplanes and some key components, voted overwhelmingly Thursday to strike, rejecting a three-year contract proposal their leaders called ``insulting.''

Boeing spokesman Charles Bickers said the strike meant the company would immediately stop assembling commercial airplanes, dealing a blow to the jet maker just as business at its commercial airplanes division appeared to be picking up.

In morning trading, shareholders punished Boeing stock, sending it down $2.01, or more than 3 percent, to $63.98 on the New York Stock Exchange. Boeing shares have traded in a 52-week range of $48.10 to $68.38.

``If the company wants to talk, they can call me,'' Mark Blondin, president of Seattle-based Machinists District Lodge 751, said after announcing 86 percent approval for the strike authorization. Union leaders were unwilling to provide actual vote tallies for the strike authorization and a separate vote on the contract offer.

Under union rules, the contract would have been automatically ratified _ and workers would have stayed on the job _ unless two-thirds of the union members voted to strike.

Company officials had said earlier they feared a strike would send customers to competitors, notably rival Airbus SAS, and questioned whether the commercial operations could ever recover.

Bickers called the strike decision ``disappointing.'' He said the Chicago-based company could continue to do other work, such as designing new aircraft, but there was no way to build airplanes without those workers.

``We sacrificed during the bad times,'' said Kansas striker Dorsey Scott. ``Now it's the good times and it seems we are getting cut out of that.''

The 27-year Boeing employee added he has his freezer stocked, his bills paid and money set aside.

Union leaders said the contract offer fell woefully short on top issues including pension payments and increased health care costs. District Lodge 751 is negotiating for employees in all three states, although some terms differ based on location.

The union last went on strike in 1995, when workers walked out for 69 days.

Workers represented in the talks now receive an average of $59,000 a year. The company had said they would earn about $62,500 a year by the end of the new contract, excluding overtime and other extra payouts.

The strike vote announcement was met by a chorus of cheers, hugs and backslapping by hundreds of workers gathered at the union's hall in south Seattle.

Larry Weckhorst, a 16-year Boeing veteran who lives in SeaTac, said he knew the strike was coming because ``the mood was just different from three years ago'' when the Machinists accepted what they considered a sub-par contract because of the airline industry's dismal state after the 2001 attacks.

Now ``the production rates are going up, the stock price is going up,'' the 47-year-old said, adding, ``That pension (issue) is huge. Look at how old our work force is.''

The company offered Machinists _ who average 49 years of age _ a pension of $66 per month for every year worked, up from $60 currently. The union said that fell short of what its workers deserve.

Bickers continued to defend the proposal as a ``comprehensive contract that compared favorably with others in our industry and in the regions where we operate.''

The union also was critical of increased health care costs and a proposal to eliminate retiree medical benefits for workers hired after July 2006, with the exception of laid-off workers who are recalled.

For about 900 union-represented workers in Wichita, the company offered no general wage increase but a one-time payout of $2,800, which would have increased to $4,200 for employees who chose to deposit the money in the Boeing 401(k)-type retirement account.

``They wanted us to turn our backs on our brothers and sisters in Wichita,'' Blondin told the Seattle union hall crowd, to a loud chorus of boos. ``They wanted us to sell out future hires.''

For about 17,500 affected Machinists in the Puget Sound area and Gresham, Ore., the final offer would have given workers lump-sum payouts of $6,000 over two years. That total could have increased to a maximum of $9,000 for employees who chose to roll the money into a retirement plan.

The company also added a 2.5 percent wage increase in the third year of the contract.

In addition, Boeing offered an incentive pay program that would have provided five days of extra pay to Oregon and Washington workers if the company met financial targets and up to 15 days' worth if the targets were exceeded.

Cost-of-living provisions would have boosted base wages by about 1 percent in each year of the contract.

The company also said it offered two health plans with the option of no premium, though premiums would have increased for most health care plans.