- The Washington Times - Monday, June 24, 2002

SEATTLE (AP) When the International Association of Machinists District 751 begins negotiations with Boeing Co. tomorrow, it will square off against more than just the world's largest aerospace company.
Because of a shaky post-September 11 economy, machinists are facing a tough battle in achieving their two top goals: job security and better pensions.
Both sides said they are optimistic about reaching an agreement before the current contract expires Sept. 1 and about avoiding a strike as occurred in two of their last four contract negotiations.
But a strike remains a possibility, they said, acknowledging that it will be a tough challenge to forge a contract that bridges the economic and employment concerns on both sides.
"We are entering these negotiations really trying to find balance between the interests of the union, the interests of our employees, our owners and all of our stakeholders," said Jerry Calhoun, vice president for human relations and union relations at Chicago-based Boeing.
"That's very complex. It doesn't take much to misstep," he added.
The machinists' biggest concerns in the talks are boosting job security and pensions issues that reflect the state of the union's membership. The average member age is 47, and layoffs since September 11 have sliced enrollment by more than a quarter.
"We're very, very unified behind those top issues," said Mark Blondin, president of IAM District 751, which represents 20,000 members in the Puget Sound region. The contract also covers another 6,000 workers in Wichita, Kan., and Portland, Ore.
Union members who grew up in the company are worried their jobs will be cut next, Mr. Blondin said. Since September, Boeing has cut its production rate in half and given pink slips to 28,300 workers across the company, with more than 23,000 having taken effect already.
And the union believes Boeing is violating a job security provision from the 1999 contract. Now under federal arbitration, the dispute focuses on Boeing sending work to outside contractors and then laying off its own workers. Boeing insists it is abiding by the contract.
Meanwhile, union members worry that once they leave, their pensions $50 a month per year of service will prove too meager to help sustain their quality of life, Mr. Blondin said, and the union is seeking to double that figure.
Boeing needs to steer through negotiations while ensuring it can stay competitive, Mr. Calhoun said.
"We have an industry [where] very few of the participants in it the airline industry are making money, and if you have a whole bunch of customers that aren't making money, it's kind of hard to predict where your production is going to level out or where your employment is going to level out."
Mr. Blondin said the union membership won't be scared by the prospect of striking in a sour economy if the two can't reach an acceptable agreement.
"This is a veteran work force," he said. "The membership is tighter than ever."
Mr. Calhoun said Boeing worries that any work stoppage could result in a golden opportunity for its competitor, Airbus Industrie of France, to seize even more market share.
Some observers think a strike is almost "inevitable," with the union at a greater disadvantage than the company, said Richard Aboulafia, aviation director with the Teal Group.
"Boeing's number one objective is to cut costs," said Mr. Aboulafia. "Fixing production in one place and stopping outsourcing is an inconceivable concession."


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