"We have a lot of leverage now," Roger Pullman, a union negotiator, told about 50 engineers and technical workers at a gathering Tuesday night in Everett. "The company cannot afford a work stoppage."
Negotiators for the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace already recommended a rejection of the company's contract offer and want approval for the union leadership to call a strike. But the union's council of 105 workplace representatives has been mulling it over for a week and is expected to render its own recommendation Thursday evening.
SPEEA's vote takes place as Boeing engineers work around the clock to get the company's 787 back in the air after federal officials grounded the jet Jan. 16. The company also is ramping up production and working on new products including the 787-9, the 767-based aerial-refueling tanker and the 737 MAX.
On Wednesday, Boeing CEO Jim McNerney declined to speculate how a strike by SPEEA members would affect operations.
"We are very hopeful that our discussions with SPEEA won't come to that," McNerney said from Chicago during a conference call with investors.
Union negotiators emphasized on Tuesday that voting yes on strike authorization doesn't necessarily mean that a work stoppage will take place. A strong rejection of the contract and approval for a strike would be strong bargaining tools the union can take back to Boeing negotiators.
With 787 woes unresolved and plenty of work on hand, SPEEA negotiator Pullman seemed confident Boeing will cave: "I think the company is running a bluff."
SPEEA won't call for a strike until the first week of March, at the earliest, negotiators said. That will be after members receive on Feb. 28 their employee incentive payout, which is 14.75 extra days of pay, according to a Boeing statement Wednesday.
Overall, Boeing's latest offer is a "healthy-looking contract, except for the poison pill," Brent McFarlane, also a SPEEA negotiator, told members Tuesday.
Earlier this month, Boeing agreed to SPEEA's request to extend the union's current contract. The key exception: Boeing wants to switch union members hired after Feb. 28 to a 401(k) retirement plan rather than put them on the defined pension plan other members enjoy.
Although some members at the meeting pointed out the benefits of a 401(k) plan, others suggested the company's purpose, besides cutting costs, is to divide the union membership between the "have mores" and the "have lesses." When there are more people enrolled in the 401(k) plan than the pension, the company will freeze pension contributions, the union negotiators said.
For Lynn Burow, the contract vote is about remaining unified. Had SPEEA offered a prize Tuesday night for the most union flair, Burow would have won easily. She wore a SPEEA shirt, customized hat and a dozen buttons lauding unions.
"If you're going to hurt past, present or future workers, then I don't want it," said Burow, a technical worker from Lynnwood.
While Burow thought many of her co-workers would vote against the contract, other SPEEA members say it could be a close vote.
Destry Ransier joined SPEEA six months ago. He left his previous job, at a Boeing supplier, when that company dumped its pension plan and implemented an alternate retirement plan similar to what Boeing intends. Ransier, who is married and has two children, is prepared to strike if necessary to protect the pension.
However, Ransier knows several young, new employees like him who want to accept the company's offer. Some can't afford to strike and are too young to care enough about retirement. Others, he said, fear Boeing will move their jobs to South Carolina, where it opened a second 787 production line following a 2008 strike by Machinists.
Like SPEEA negotiators, Ransier believes Boeing's engineers and technical workers aren't easily replaceable. But he doesn't believe in "strong-arming" the company, either. He'd be happy to keep the exact same contract as SPEEA signed in 2008.
Update, 9:50 a.m. Jan. 31: SPEEA is expected to tally the contract and strike authority ballots Feb. 19.
Herald reporter Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454 or email@example.com.