By Bryan Corliss
March 11, 2020 © Leeham News – New Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun earned a split decision in his first major labor relations test Monday, as unionized engineers with the company’s Commercial Airplanes division narrowly approved a contract extension. A second unit, for technical workers, rejected a similar proposal.
The news came as Boeing announced the first case of COVID-19 among its 70,000-member Puget Sound workforce: an unidentified employee at the company’s Everett plant.
The proposal for engineers belonging to SPEEA (the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace) was approved with a 51.2% yes vote, the union reported shortly before midnight (Pacific Time). Technical workers, however, rejected a similar deal with 56.7% “no” vote.
Corrects issues over pay raises
As a result of the vote, close to 13,000 Boeing engineers now have a new contract that corrects issues the union had identified with pay raises, provides parental leave and – perhaps most importantly — give workers access to Washington’s state-run paid family and medical leave program.
The contract will run until October 2026.
The union’s 4,700 members who are technical workers, on the other hand, will continue working under their current contract until it expires in October 2022.
“The members have had their say and we respect their decisions,” said union President Joel Funfar, who works as an avionics lab tech for BCA programs in Puget Sound. “SPEEA is a very democratic union and these results clearly bear that out.”
Threatened to sue
The voting was conducted by mail over the past three weeks. Ballots were counted Monday night at the union’s headquarters in the south Seattle suburb of Tukwila.
The contract extensions were the results of talks that started after SPEEA leadership accused Boeing management of violating specific terms of their 2016 contract in order to hold down annual increases to base salaries.
After the union threatened that “litigation will resolve this,” the two sides agreed to talks that resulted in a proposed contract extension that would do away with the former formula for calculating annual raises and bonuses – which involved annual studies of pay for comparable workers nationwide — and replacing it with a locked-in schedule.
It was the first labor test for Calhoun, who is going to have deal with the fall-out from the company’s approach to labor relations in the past decade. SPEEA’s charge that managers had deliberately manipulated data to hold down wages came on Calhoun’s first day on the job Jan. 13.
Deal bakes in engineer pay increases
Under the proposal the engineers accepted, they will get 3.5% salary increases 2020, 2021 and 2022, with 4.5% increases from 2023-2026. They’ll also get annual lump-sum payments of 2% this year and next, with a 1.5% payment in 2022.
The contract rejected by the techs would have granted them 3.5% pay increases from 2020 through 2026, along with lump-sum payments between 1% and 2% in each year.
Since that contract was not ratified, the techs will continue to work under the terms of the 2016 agreement, which specifies that they’ll be paid 15% above the national average for American workers who do similar jobs. Boeing will increase the total amount it pays all techs by 5% each year; money needed to get them to the target wage will be added to their base salary, the remainder will be paid out as a lump sum.
(For example, in the first year of the contract, techs got raises of 2.3% with one-time payments of 2.7%.)
A union spokesman was not available for comment in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, and it is unclear precisely why techs didn’t favor the contract.
But based on comments posted to the union’s Facebook page in recent weeks, it seems that many of the members – particularly in the tech ranks – weren’t willing to give Boeing a four-year contract extension for what they viewed as mere “tweaks” to the pay formula.
The combination of wages and lump-sum payments was less than the 5% target in the 2016 contract, several noted. “Please explain why ANY union would agree to give back money we already agreed to accept,” one engineer asked.
Others wanted to wait for the current deal to expire, so that the union could use the threat of a strike as leverage.
“Voting no mean that you refuse to negotiate the next contract before the one you have is expiring,” a union member opined online. “No doesn’t mean no. It just means not yet.”
“Give me a contract in two years and not sooner,” another tech said. “Ridiculousness!”
Paid sick leave may be biggest benefit
The vote came, coincidentally, as cases of COVID-19 spread throughout Seattle and its suburbs, leading Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a state of emergency.
One of the benefits the engineers won with the extension is the ability to tap into Washington state’s Paid Family and Medical Leave program, which allows workers to take up to 16 weeks of paid time off to recover from a medical issue or take care of a family member.
The law that established the benefit in 2017 said that workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement weren’t eligible to take part until those contracts expired. SPEEA had sent a delegation to Washington’s Capitol in Olympia to lobby for a change in that law.
As a result of Monday’s vote, engineers will get the benefit on June 1. Techs won’t until their contract expires in the fall of 2022.
Boeing employee tests positive
That could be a huge benefit in the months ahead. Last week, Boeing said a second-shift worker on the Everett 777 line had gone home with flu-like symptoms, and that another 10 close coworkers had been sent home as a precaution.
Monday night, Boeing confirmed that an Everett worker has tested positive for COVID-19. The company didn’t specify whether it was the same person who had gone home sick last week.
“As a precaution, we’ve asked all coworkers of this employee who were in close contact to remain home to self-quarantine and self-monitor, and we’ve conducted a thorough cleaning of the work areas and common spaces,” Boeing said Monday.
Workers who can telecommute already had been instructed to work from home, the company said. However, that doesn’t apply to touch-labor workers who actually assemble the aircraft in the factory.
A spokeswoman for the union for those workers wasn’t available on Tuesday. On Monday, however, the Machinists Union’s district lodge in Seattle announced that it was suspending all of its local lodge meetings for the rest of March, as well as one of its two scheduled district council meetings. It also postponed three other events, including a general membership conference that typically attracts hundreds of people to the union’s Seattle hall.
“During these times, there isn’t any local lodge business that we can’t conduct the following month,” IAM District 751 told its members as it announced the cancellations.