Boeing shuts down jet assembly as machinists strike

Machinists at Boeing voted overwhelmingly to strike, rejecting a three-year contract proposal their leaders had deemed “insulting”.

The strike by more than 18 000 assembly workers at 12.01am local time on Friday means Boeing will stop building commercial airplanes, and comes at a time when new orders had picked up in recent months.

“We don’t intend to assemble airplanes during this strike,” Boeing spokesperson Charles Bickers said, adding the company was “disappointed”.

Union members voted 86% in favour of the a strike. 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.

The strike will affect Machinists who build commercial jets and and some key components in the Seattle area, Gresham, Oregon, and Wichita, Kansas.

“If the company wants to talk, they can call me,” Mark Blondin, president of Seattle-based Machinists District Lodge 751, said after announcing the strike authorisation. Union leaders refused to provide actual vote tallies for the strike authorisation and a separate vote on the contract offer.

Company officials had said earlier in the week that a strike would be devastating.

Union leaders had urged the 18 400 members to “reject this insulting Boeing proposal,” saying it fell woefully short on their 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.

News of the strike vote 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 from suburban Seattle, said he anticipated a 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,” Weckhorst (47) said. He added: “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 says that falls woefully short of what its workers deserve.

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 increase to $4&nbsp200 for employees who chose to deposit the money in Boeing’s retirement account.

Chicago-based Boeing has defended its retirement plan as one of the best in the industry, and the company said that despite some medical cost increases it will continue to shoulder the bulk of the health care burden.

For about 17 500 affected machinists in the Puget Sound area and Gresham, Oregon, the final offer gave workers lump-sum payouts of $6 000 over two years. That total could increase 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% wage increase in the third year of the contract.

In addition, Boeing offered an incentive pay programme that would provide five days of pay to Oregon and Washington workers if the company meets financial targets and up to 15 days’ worth if the targets are exceeded.

Cost-of-living provisions would boost base wages by about one percent in each year of the contract.

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

District Lodge 751 is negotiating for employees in all three states, although terms differ based on location. Workers represented in the talks now receive an average of $59 000 a year. The company said they would earn about $62 500 a year by the end of the new contract, excluding overtime and other payments. - Sapa-AP