News

Boeing workers waiting, worrying

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

Boeing machinists remain on a strike with no end in sight, which could have some affect on the 480 union members living in Federal Way.

“We had about $10,000 saved up, but once that’s gone, I’m not sure what we’ll do,” said Richard Humiston, who lives near Star Lake in Federal Way with his wife and 2-year-old daughter.

The machinists are the people who make some of the aircraft parts and who put the aircraft together. They work as inspectors, running tests to ensure the parts work correctly once they’re 30,000 feet in the air. Machinists also paint the planes and maintain all the equipment in the buildings, as well as the buildings themselves.

Humiston is a quality-insurance inspector. He runs tests on aircraft vertical stabilizers and inspects seats, side walls and luggage compartments, among other things. He likes his job, he said, and wants to go back, but he’s not sure how long the strike will go on. He said he was told the machinists are in it for the long haul.

Machinists from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 751 began the strike just before Labor Day, on Sept. 1. About 17,000 Puget Sound-area members are striking.

Starting this Saturday, they will be able to begin picking up their $150 weekly strike pay checks. Union spokeswoman Connie Kelliher said it’s unclear how long the strike could last.

“So far, the company hasn’t been willing to come back to the bargaining table except to talk about the contract rejected by an 86 percent (membership) vote,” she said.

Boeing spokesman Chaz Bickers said the aerospace company isn’t interested in unrealistic talks.

“We’re ready to discuss any proposal around our offer as long as it’s clear it allows us to grow,” he said. “We’re interested in reasonable discussions that recognize the realities of the aerospace industry.”

Kelliher said Boeing management has been unresponsive to union workers’ pension and healthcare needs.

“Our top two issues –– and we were very clear going into this round –– were pensions and healthcare,” she said. “How Boeing responded was they offered the lowest pension increase in 50 years, and increased healthcare from $2,000 to $5,000 out of pocket.”

She said the union had “passed zeroes” for wage increases in favor of seeking pension increases and better healthcare coverage, so union leaders were dismayed to see a contract that not only didn’t provide wage increases, but also provided neither the pension increases they wanted nor the healthcare.

In addition, Kelliher said, the contract proposal “was full of takeaways,” particularly reduction in health coverage and retiree medical benefits.

“What upset our people was this had less money and benefits than in 2002, when times were dramatically worse,” she said. “They just wanted to shift costs onto employees. What’s dangerous is when Washington’s largest private employer triples healthcare costs, you can bet other companies will, too.”

“What they offered us money-wise is fine,” Humiston said. But he added that with a 2-year-old daughter, whom he and his wife recently adopted, the trips to the doctor are making the healthcare coverage a bigger issue for his family.

In addition, he’s concerned about Boeing’s plan to stop providing retiree medical benefits to new hires, Humiston said. Currently, Boeing provides pre-Medicare coverage to those workers who choose to retire before age 65. That coverage ends when the former employee becomes eligible for Medicare.

But if the new contract flies, new hires won’t get the early retirement medical coverage. That means if Boeing decides to eliminate the coverage for everyone in 20 years, when Humiston is 54 and part of a minority of older company employees with the benefit, none of the newer employees will fight for it because they won’t have it, anyway.

As far as pensions are concerned, Bickers said Boeing employees are “at the top of the market. It’s the best pension in the country.”

He said Boeing was prepared to offer employees a 10 percent increase in pensions.

“They wanted a 33 percent increase,” Bickers said. “Thirty-three percent doesn’t seem to reflect the reality of any contract settlement.”

And the machinists also had what he called “extensive” cash bonus requests.

“Their cash bonus requests were as extreme as the pension benefits,” Bickers said, adding Boeing had offered a bonus of $6,000 cut into two $3,000 payouts.

Kelliher said Boeing posted an after-tax profit of $1.87 billion in 2004. As of June this year, the company’s after-tax profit was $1.1 billion.

“Boeing keeps saying they have to be competitive. How much more competitive do you have to be?” she said.

“Of course, we need to be profitable if we’re going to be able to invest in our employees’ future and our company’s future,” Bickers said, noting the company in 2004 spent $4.4 billion on pensions. “We need to be profitable to invest in new products, like the 787, pensions and developing our business. It’s a minimum requirement for long-term security.

“In 2000, the company overall made $2.1 billion. We’ve been in one of the worst downturns. We’re at the beginning of the recovery. We need to keep an eye on the future and win new orders. It’s the only way to create and sustain new jobs.”

Dick Conway, co-publisher of the Puget Sound Economic Forecaster, said that overall, the strike shouldn’t have a significantly negative regional economic impact unless it goes on for several months.

“In the past, the strikes themselves have been relatively minor economic events,” he said. “Even if the strike lasted two months, it would knock just one-tenth or two-tenths of a percent off the region’s economic growth. Unless the strike is unduly long, it won’t create any problems in that regard.”

The concern, he said, is how the strike might disrupt production and employment at Boeing if the stoppage continues.

“There’s a potential impact, but it depends on how long the strike lasts,” he said.

Some small businesses, like service vendors, restaurants and cafés might feel a strain as their bread and butter becomes scarce. “Businesses literally on the edge of the plants will be affected,” Conway said. “And some workers will have problems. But, standing back and looking at the economy at large, it’ll be minimal. From an economic standpoint, you’ll hardly feel the ripple.”

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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