Machinist Contract Vote Could Lock-In Work On Boeing's 777

Even though it's not a negotiating period, Boeing told the union that members have to vote Wednesday on an eight-year contract extension that includes higher health insurance costs and a pension freeze. Boeing says if they don't pass it, the company may build the next version of its wide-body 777 jet elsewhere.

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Boeing is playing hardball with 30,000 of its unionized workers in Washington State. Boeing machinists have been told by the company they need to vote today on a contract extension that will freeze their pensions and boost their health insurance costs. The aviation giant says if the contract proposal is rejected, the company could shift production of the Boeing 777 airliner to another state.

From KPLU in Seattle, Ashley Gross reports.

ASHLEY GROSS, BYLINE: To show just how seriously Washington State takes winning this airplane, in just three days, state lawmaker's meeting in a special session passed about $9 billion worth of tax breaks.

GOVERNOR JAY INSLEE: With this signature, the 777x is ready for takeoff and we are signing 5952, here we go.

(APPLAUSE)

GROSS: Washington Governor Jay Inslee says the legislation contains safeguards to make sure the company can't renege on its promises. Boeing's vowed to assemble the plane - known as the 777x - along with its carbon-fiber wing in the state where the company got its start almost a century ago.

INSLEE: It is unprecedented that we will assure that these jobs that are today enjoyed by the best aerospace workers in the world, Washington State machinists; will make sure that they are not outsourced to any other state or any other country in the future.

GROSS: That's always the fear. Boeing employs 83,000 people in the state, but this year, that local workforce has begun to shrink. In 2009, Boeing started building a new Dreamliner factory in South Carolina - something many people saw as the beginning of the end for Washington State's lock on those high-paying aerospace jobs. One reason South Carolina was attractive - it has laws that make unionizing difficult.

BOEING MACHINISTS: (chanting) Vote no. Vote no. Vote no. Vote no.

GROSS: Several hundred Boeing machinists stand and chant outside their union hall just down the street from Boeing's massive factory north of Seattle. Wilson Ferguson is leading the rally. He's worked for Boeing for 26 years and has been on four strikes.

WILSON FERGUSON: Are you willing to sell your soul for $10,000?

MACHINISTS: (shouting) No. No. No.

FERGUSON: Are you willing to sell out your kids and your grandkids?

MACHINISTS: (shouting) No.

GROSS: Boeing's offer contains sweeteners like a $10,000 signing bonus. But, Ferguson and other machinists are livid. The company wants to move them to a 401(k)-type retirement plan in a couple of years and freeze the pension - something they've walked out on strike over in the past. And Ferguson says the worst part is - they're in the middle of their contract - the machinists' union doesn't legally have the right to strike.

FERGUSON: They gave us a week to decide the fate of our families, of our neighbors, of the Puget Sound; we've got a week to decide that? And it's my way or the highway - see ya.

GROSS: And they don't understand why Boeing is pushing this eight-year contract extension at a time when it just hauled in more than a billion dollars in profit in the most recent quarter. Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner defends the offer to the machinists, saying it's a generous package. And he says the market for airplanes right now is cutthroat.

RAY CONNER: Like all American companies, I got to tell you, we are under siege by our competition from abroad, today we're facing the Europeans, but soon we'll be facing others.

GROSS: Including, looming competition from Asia. Aviation analyst Scott Hamilton predicts the machinists will vote to accept the contract.

SCOTT HAMILTON: If you don't pass this thing, the jobs could very well go someplace else, so as I like to say, it's better to have 50 percent of something than 100 percent of nothing.

GROSS: And Hamilton points out, for every one Boeing job, another three jobs get created. That means everyone from garbage haulers to car dealers to real estate agents in the Seattle area has something at stake.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Gross in Seattle.

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