Boeing engineers in strike threat

Beleaguered Boeing is facing a possible engineers strike, just when the plane maker needs them most.

The strike threat is bad timing for the US plane maker, which is working around the clock to solve battery problems that have grounded its high-tech 787 Dreamliners around the world – and unionised engineers are a big part of that effort.

They will vote from Tuesday until February 19. The union has recommended that its members reject Boeing’s contract proposal, hoping the company offers something better, or they may strike.

The threat is growing just as Boeing is dealing with a host of other problems. It must mollify airlines frustrated about buying a £127.3 million plane they cannot fly, and it needs to fix the battery problem.

US regulators have launched an open-ended review of the 787’s design and construction and Boeing needs to speed up production of the 787 and other planes.

Last month a battery on a parked 787 caught fire at Logan International Airport in Boston. Then on January 16, another 787 had to make an emergency landing in Japan after another battery problem.

All 50 787s that Boeing had delivered so far are grounded until the issue is solved.

Boeing has said that fixing the 787 is taking its full effort, including hundreds of members of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace. The union represents about 23,000 workers at Boeing.

When asked on Wednesday whether a SPEEA strike would affect the investigation into the battery issues, Jim McNerney, Boeing’s chairman and chief executive, said: “I think we’re going to have enough experts available to keep looking at this issue if it goes that far.”

Union executive director Ray Goforth said the 787s’ grounding “shifted a lot of leverage to us” but workers wanted to keep things simple and not take advantage of Boeing’s situation, so they dropped the improvements they had been seeking in favour of extending the contract.

Boeing’s counter-offer – the one the union will vote on – mostly does that. But Boeing wants to drop traditional pensions for future employees, replacing them with other plans. The firm also refused to make two changes that SPEEA wanted, which, the union said, would help preserve current retirement benefits.

Boeing has called the proposed contract its “best and final offer”.

The engineers and technical workers in SPEEA work on plans for new planes, as well as solving problems that arise on the factory floor.

The union believes a strike would shut down Boeing production lines in Everett, Washington, where its big planes are made, as well as Renton, Washington, where it turns out more than one of its widely-used 737s every day. The factory-floor assembly work is done by the members of the International Association of Machinists.

Mr Goforth believes a strike would also shut down Boeing’s new, non-union plant in North Charleston, South Carolina, which makes 787s in addition to those assembled in Everett. That was because much of the engineering work on the South Carolina planes was done by SPEEA members in Washington, or those who are flown in on assignment to South Carolina, he said.

Boeing has not said whether it would keep the plants running through a strike, but it has contingency plans. “We of course don’t want a strike,” spokesman Doug Alder said.

Union strife has hit the 787 before. Machinists union members walked out in 2008, contributing to a three-and-a-half year delay in delivering the first Dreamliner. It was also one factor in Boeing opening the plant in South Carolina, where laws make it more difficult to unionise.

The Machinists approved a new, four-year contract in December 2011, Wall Street welcomed the truce and Boeing shares jumped 12% in the month after the deal was announced.

Boeing has posted a profit of about four billion dollars each in 2011 and 2012. In December it said it would boost its dividend to shareholders.

“Boeing’s big problem, of course, is that it’s doing well” and union members want to be rewarded, said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University.

But Mr Chaison thinks a strike will be avoided, saying the issues they are fighting over – pensions and other retirement benefits – can be negotiated. And, with all the company’s other issues right now, “Boeing wants this off the table”, he said.

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