State leaders press for Boeing union vote, as company expands South Carolina footprint

McClatchy-Tribune News ServicesDecember 13, 2013 

— Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday called for a vote on a proposed contract between Boeing and Puget Sound machinists, even though local union leaders have already rejected the company’s latest offer in the high-stakes negotiations to keep thousands of jobs in the state.

The contract would secure work on Boeing’s new 777X airplane at a time when 22 states are competing for those jobs. Inslee said that union membership gives each worker a say in his or her future and they should have the opportunity to exercise that right.

“That should happen soon, as I have become increasingly concerned that we are at a perilous point in our effort to bring the 777X to Washington state,” said Inslee, who was endorsed by the local Machinists union in his campaign for governor last year.

Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick urged the Machinists in their area to hold a vote. They went a step further than Inslee, also urging union members to approve the contract. U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen expressed concern about the region’s aerospace future if no labor agreement is in place, saying, “the time to vote is now.”

UNION LEADERS AT ODDS

Leaders in the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers publicly differed Friday on whether to bring Boeing’s latest contract offer to a vote, exposing tensions within the union over how to handle the negotiations.

National union spokesman Frank Larkin said Friday that officials were exploring the idea of a vote after hundreds of members demanded an opportunity to have a say on the contract to secure work on the 777X. Larkin said members have always had the final say and they have every right to vote on the terms of the offer.

But local union officials said Friday they don’t see any point in bringing it to a vote because it’s too similar to a contract the union rejected a month ago by a 2-to-1 margin.

“So, until Boeing changes its conditions, we don’t have an offer to vote on,” District 751 President Tom Wroblewski said in a statement.

The latest round of contract talks collapsed Thursday after local Machinists officials said they could not recommend Boeing’s latest proposal to members. Local union spokesman Bryan Corliss said Boeing has withdrawn the contract offer.

Boeing spokesman Doug Alder said, however, that the offer was rejected by the union, not withdrawn. He declined further comment Friday.

Local union officials have seemed to disagree with their national leaders in recent weeks on how to handle Boeing’s offers. That division was clear last month, when local members voted to reject a contract negotiated by Machinists leadership.

CHANGES IN OFFER

Boeing made changes this week to its original contract offer, backing away from a proposal that would slow the rate at which employees rise up the pay scale and adding an additional $5,000 in bonus pay. The biggest sticking point appears to be the company’s insistence that workers move from a traditional defined-benefit pension to a defined-contribution savings plan.

The local Machinists said the company’s latest proposal was too high of a price to pay to secure the 777X.

“I think you’ll agree these were very minor changes, and not nearly enough to offset the things Boeing was trying to take away from you, and for the Machinists who will join us in the future,” Wroblewski wrote in a message to members Friday morning.

Looming over the talks is the prospect that the company could build the airplane elsewhere. Chicago-based Boeing said it has received proposals from 22 states eager for the 777X jobs, with some proposing multiple sites. The company said 54 sites are now being evaluated.

In its own bid to win the 777X jobs, Washington state recently approved tax breaks for Boeing valued at $9 billion over the coming years, along with legislation to improve aerospace training programs and the permitting process.

Boeing began offering the 777X in May, but it’s still finalizing plans for the plane and aiming to deliver the first aircraft by the end of the decade.

The Seattle Times reported Thursday that the Boeing board is to meet Sunday in Chicago to discuss the proposals from the states on the 777X program.

S.C. EXPANSION; $1 LAND LEASE DEAL

Also on Friday, it was reported that Boeing has obtained a $1-a-year lease for another large tract of state land near its factory in South Carolina that will nearly double the amount expected for a planned expansion, a spokeswoman for the plane maker said on Friday.

Besides 267 acres it had planned to lease from the Charleston County Aviation Authority, Boeing added another 201 acres that had been privately owned, spokeswoman Candy Eslinger said.

Boeing did not say what it plans to build on the land, which is near its 787 Dreamliner final assembly plant in North Charleston.

The South Carolina land deal closed three days after Boeing received proposals from other states that want the company’s lucrative 777X program.

Palmetto Railways, a division of the South Carolina Department of Commerce, paid $49 million for the land, a department spokeswoman said. It will lease the property to Boeing for $1 a year until 2027, when the company can opt to buy it.

Boeing also leases the 264 acre-plot for its 787 final assembly plant for $1 a year from the Charleston County Aviation Authority. The lease term on that land expires in 2025, when Boeing has the option to purchase it.

The 468 acres in the latest tracts were bought with state bond funds allocated to Boeing that could only be used for land purchase and preparation, Eslinger said.

As part of the land transaction, South Carolina recently sold $85 million in bonds, raising a portion of the $120 million the state approved last spring for Boeing’s expansion. The funds include money for infrastructure and wetlands mitigation.

Boeing also announced on Friday that it would begin construction next year on a new 230,000-square-foot paint facility on its main campus in North Charleston. The company said it expects to begin painting fully assembled 787 Dreamliners in South Carolina in mid-2016. In November, it kicked off construction of a 225,000-square-foot propulsion center that will design and assemble part of the engine housing for another new jet, the 737 Max. The facility is on Boeing-owned land about 12 miles from the main campus.

Mike Baker of The Associated Press, Harriet McLeod of Reuters and Dominic Gates of The Seattle Times contributed to this report.

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