Machinists on Strike

6 09 2008

The union that represents machinists struck the Boeing Company early Saturday, crippling its aircraft production in the United States and potentially delaying the development of an important new plane, the Dreamliner.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers said its 27,000 members at Boeing walked off the job at 3:01 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time. It had told workers in an e-mail message on Friday afternoon that “the strike is on.”

If the strike goes on for more than two weeks, union members will begin drawing $150 a week in strike pay during the third week of the strike. The typical pay for a union member is $27 an hour, or about $56,000 a year before overtime and bonuses.

The decision came after the two sides failed to reach agreement on a new three-year contract during negotiations in Orlando, Fla., that were supervised by a federal mediator.

The talks moved to Orlando, where the union was holding a national conference, from Seattle, the home of Boeing Commercial Airplanes and many of the company’s production sites. The union agreed to extend its contract for 48 hours late Wednesday, even though workers had voted overwhelmingly against Boeing’s offer and in favor of a strike.

In a statement, Boeing said that its plants would remain open and that workers not represented by the machinists’ union would be expected to report for work. But it said it would not assemble planes during the strike.

“Over the past two days, Boeing, the union and the federal mediator worked hard in pursuing good-faith explorations of options that could lead to an agreement. Unfortunately, the differences were too great to close,” Scott Carson, the president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said in the statement.

Boeing has a backlog of more than 3,600 orders, valued at $263 billion. The majority of those planes are versions of the Boeing 737, a short-range plane that is the world’s most popular aircraft.

The full effect of a walkout by machinists in Washington, Oregon and Kansas will not be felt until next week. Boeing, which earned a record $4.1 billion in 2007, could easily withstand a short strike. But a long walkout could cause more delays in the development of the Boeing 787, nicknamed the Dreamliner.

The long-range jet, for which Boeing has nearly 900 orders worth at least $3.5 billion, is meant to be more fuel efficient than the Boeing 747, which the company has been making since 1970. The Dreamliner has encountered a series of problems, many of them with suppliers, which have pushed back its delivery date by more than a year.

Analysts estimate that each day the plan is delayed could cost the company $100 million. Given the uncertain climate surrounding the global aviation market, industry experts say it is important that the Dreamliner stay on schedule.

The plane, which Boeing originally hoped to begin delivering this year, is now expected to begin reaching customers in the third quarter of 2009. Boeing hopes to conduct the plane’s first test flight before the end of this year.

Northwest Airlines was Boeing’s first American customer, while the Dreamliner has been ordered by several overseas airlines, including Japan Air Lines, Royal Jordanian and Air Canada.

A strike was Boeing’s second in its last two sets of contract talks. Boeing workers spent a month on strike in 2005.

“Despite meeting late into the night and throughout the day, continued contract talks with the Boeing Company did not address our issues,” the union’s district president, Tom Wroblewski, told members in an e-mail message.

“If the company wants to talk, they have my number,” he added. “They can reach me on the picket line.”

When the union agreed on Wednesday to extend its contract, workers had already voted 87 percent in favor of a strike, and 80 percent against Boeing’s last contract offer.

Last week, Boeing posted what it called its best and final offer on its Web site and recessed talks to let workers consider the proposal over the Labor Day weekend.

The terms of the three-year contract include an 11 percent raise, up from an earlier offer of 9 percent, for the average machinist, who earns about $27 an hour, or $56,000 a year.

Boeing also proposed an increase in pension financing, as well as having workers take on more of their health care expenses.

The union has pushed for a 13 percent raise and richer pensions. It wants stronger contract language on job security and is balking at higher medical expenses. The current contract was extended while talks continue.

Union leaders were critical of Boeing’s decision to leave the bargaining table and appeal directly to machinists, saying the company should have remained in talks until the deadline expired.


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