Crucial Machinist contract vote projected to be close

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The Legislature on Saturday overwhelmingly passed a package of incentives meant to assure Boeing builds the 777X jet in Washington state, but the Machinists who’ll vote Wednesday on their piece of the company’s take-it-or-leave-it proposal face a more personal decision.

One 32-year-old Machinist at Boeing’s Auburn plant said all his co-workers are edgy and anxious, endlessly discussing what to do. He’s voting yes, to approve Boeing’s offer.

“It’s like I’m smiling while I’m being kicked in the (groin),” he said. “But it’s better than being decapitated.”

The only union official authorized to talk about the proposed 8-year contract extension on Saturday predicted the vote will be close, and offered a strangely positive counterpoint to the fervent denunciation of the deal two days earlier by the Machinists’ local leader.

As the crucial vote loomed, politicians, union workers and industry watchers all agreed that rejection of the company’s tough terms would take both Boeing and the Machinists into risky new territory.

Boeing insists it would quickly pivot and hunt for alternative locations for its crucial new airplane model, even as it prepares to launch the jet program at the Dubai Air Show just a week away.

Some Machinists assume Boeing is bluffing and would rework its contract proposal. If not, that would be a devastating blow for the union and for the state, spelling an end early in the next decade for 777 production that employs some 20,000 people at the Everett widebody plant.

Several thorny issues

The Auburn Machinist who plans to vote yes said Boeing’s proposal for an 8-year contract with significant cuts in pensions, benefits and future pay increases is “eviscerating” both the current benefits package and the union.

“But you have to do a cost-benefit analysis,” he said. “It’s unrealistic to believe the benefits package … is sustainable. We’d rather have the jobs.”

The average gross pay for Boeing Machinists last year was about $85,000.

The contract extension offered by the company provides raises of only 1 percent every other year, on top of a cost-of-living adjustment to keep pace with inflation.

The major issue for many Machinists is that Boeing would end contributions to the traditional pension, replacing that with a defined-contribution retirement savings plan.

Another thorny issue is that the current wage structure — in which employees zoom to the top of the pay scale at the end of their sixth year — would be replaced for new hires by a plodding progression that means they wouldn’t reach the maximum pay for 16 years or longer. In addition, health care premiums and co-pays would rise.

Job security valued

Yet on Saturday, the International Association of Machinists union offered a positive perspective on the 777X deal that focused solely on the job security it would bring.

This contrasted sharply with Thursday night’s events, when the IAM’s local district president, Tom Wroblewski, tore up a copy of Boeing’s offer at a union meeting and called it “a piece of crap.”

Reflecting a deep fissure within the union, the IAM national headquarters is now tightly controlling the message.

Wroblewski was not available for interview, and most of the local district staff — even the union’s two media officers ­­— have been barred from talking to the media.

Instead, Joe Crockett, a union-business representative in Auburn, spoke for the union on Saturday.

“These are good jobs. They pay well and we will still have good benefits,” said Crockett. “We will still have, for us and our families, a future. That’s what it’s all about.”

Unlike many union members, Crockett doesn’t believe Boeing is bluffing in its threat to take 777X work elsewhere if the vote fails.

Crockett’s assessment, from his discussions with members, is that the vote will be “very close.”

Gov. Jay Inslee, in an interview Saturday, echoed the message that what’s at stake with the 777X is securing local blue-collar, middle-class jobs for the future.

While the state is also known for software and biotech firms, he said, aerospace provides the Washington economy with high-end jobs for “people who work with their hands and their minds.”

‘Good deal for state’

The carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic composite wings of the 787 Dreamliner are built in Japan, but Boeing promises — if its conditions are met — to locate a facility here to fabricate the 777X’s composite wings.

Inslee said that will secure “probably the single most important advanced technology in manufacturing today” and greatly enhance the state’s chances of making future Boeing airplanes as well as the 777X. “What went out to Japan is now coming in to Washington,” he said.

He said he regards the state’s scramble to win that prize as “an investment, rather than being dictated to” by Boeing.

“We are making a rational decision,” he said. “It’s a good deal for the state.”