Boeing eyes shift in union fight

Company official Jean Chamberlin at Boeing's Ridley Township plant, where there are engineering operations.
Company official Jean Chamberlin at Boeing's Ridley Township plant, where there are engineering operations. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff)
Posted: September 08, 2012

Boeing Co. says it may rely more on engineers at less-expensive sites outside its Seattle jet-manufacturing hub unless it wins competitive labor costs in union contract talks.

While the planemaker is keeping a renewed focus on engineering supported by Jim Albaugh, the former commercial planes chief who pushed to empower the group after delays on the 787 Dreamliner, the core doesn't have to be in Puget Sound, Mike Delaney, the company's chief engineer, said Wednesday.

"Seattle is a love-hate relationship for me," he said. "I love pumping all the money into my team, but now we're in the same place as Southern California and the Washington, D.C., area in terms of cost to do engineering. Those are the three most expensive places in the country to do engineering."

Boeing's engineers not only design new planes, they also inspect those being built and sign off on the work before aircraft are delivered. That means any labor action would interrupt work flow during a record production increase, so the aircraft maker must balance that risk with winning cost savings in a contract to replace the one expiring Oct. 6.

Talks so far have been contentious, with disagreement strongest over Boeing's plan to switch new engineers to a 401(k)-style retirement benefit rather than a pension, according to the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace.

Speea, as the union is known, represents about 23,000 Boeing workers, mostly based in the Seattle area. Its 15,000 engineers make an average of $110,000 a year, while 8,000 technical workers under the same contract earn an average $79,000.

Other U.S. metropolitan areas where Boeing has engineering operations are less expensive, Delaney said, including St. Louis, Houston, San Antonio, Huntsville, Ala., and Ridley Township, Delaware County.

"Everybody who worked on the 787 will tell you that the vast majority of problems came from lack of coordination due to the separation of engineering from manufacturing," said Ray Goforth, Speea's executive director. "To have Boeing resurrect this failed model to threaten employees into accepting pay and benefit cuts is the most disrespectful thing I've heard yet in these negotiations."

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