Ballots will be tallied today as technical workers represented by the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace vote again on a Boeing contract offer they rejected last month. For many, the stumbling point in the offer was the company's plan to move new union members to a 401(k) retirement plan instead of the defined pension. The change, however, didn't prevent SPEEA engineers from accepting the offer, though not by a large margin: 6,483 to 5,514.
Likewise, technical workers didn't overwhelmingly reject Boeing's offer, voting it down by a margin of 3,203 to 2,868. The narrow margin was one of the reasons Boeing was unwilling to improve the contract, SPEEA leaders told members in a March 1 letter.
In his monthly column, SPEEA President Tom McCarty advised technical workers against holding out for a pension for new workers. The engineers' acceptance of the contract "virtually eliminated" the possibility that technical workers will be able to preserve a pension for new workers, he wrote.
A contract rejection will "almost certainly lead to a strike," SPEEA leaders warned technical workers earlier this month. The technical workers already gave union negotiators the authority to call a strike in the February vote.
No matter the outcome of today's vote, SPEEA faces a new challenge with Boeing and the pension. In future negotiations, the union will have to bargain for members with different retirement plans. McCarty emphasized the problems in his column, saying it will be harder for new employees to have a secure retirement under the 401(k) plan, which the union estimates will be worth 40 percent less than the pension. For those with pension "keeping what we have is not guaranteed," he wrote.
In messages to SPEEA members, Boeing negotiators have said the switch away from a pension is vital to the company's competitiveness. On Thursday, Boeing leaders wrote that they are "optimistic that technical workers will see the strong value in the company's offer."
Analyst Scott Hamilton, with Leeham Co., described pensions as "pretty onerous" for companies anymore. Despite union claims to the contrary, Hamilton doesn't think Boeing's 401(k) offering will hurt the company's ability to recruit workers. But Boeing's battle over pensions is far from over.
"Clearly changing the pension is something Boeing is going to want to do when (negotiations with) the IAM comes up," Hamilton said referring to local district 751 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The union extended its contract with Boeing in late 2011, putting the labor agreement up for negotiation again in 2016.
The Machinists consider pension a "sacred issue," said Connie Kelliher, Machinists spokeswoman. The union has many members whose parents and grandparents worked at Boeing, she said. Those workers fought and went on strike to get the benefits enjoyed by Machinists today.
"Everything we have is because of what those who came before us fought for," Kelliher said. "How do you leave less for the ones coming behind you?"
In 2008, Boeing had proposed the 401(k) switch in negotiations with Machinists, but pulled the idea in a last ditch attempt to persuade union members not to strike. By that point, however, members were riled up and remained upset about the lack of assurances over outsourcing. The Machinists went on strike for 57 days.
"Pensions are and always will be a top priority," Kelliher said. "I don't imagine that will diminish in the next contract."
Although the switch to the 401(k) for engineers might help Boeing remain competitive as the company argued, analyst Hamilton doubts that will help SPEEA or any union win job assurances with Boeing.
"Boeing wants to take work away from unions. Period," Hamilton said.
Check Heraldnet.com tonight for results of the SPEEA vote.
Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org.