WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- The union representing engineers at Boeing Co.'s military aircraft plant here urged its members Friday to reject the firm's so-called final offer.
Bob Brewer, Midwest director for the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, said the union hopes to get workers to reject the contract and get the company back to the negotiating table. Thursday's vote will not include a strike authorization at Boeing's Integrated Defense Systems facility in Wichita, where the union represents 700 engineers.
"Engineers still have a very strong market here in spite of the economy," Brewer said.
However, Boeing spokesman Jarrod Bartlett said that while the company is willing to sit down and discuss provisions of their offer, the union has its best and final offer.
"We are disappointed they are recommending a rejection to the membership," Bartlett said. "However, we are pleased they will give their employees the ability to choose, and we hope that they will look at the offer, understand the offer and, given today's economic environment and Wichita's competitive situation, vote to ratify when they go to vote."
The company's offer includes a 3 percent raise over the life of the three-year contract. The union contends that is not enough and that the proposal includes poorer health care plan options and gives new hires reduced pension benefits.
The union announcement of the contract vote comes amid a flurry of layoffs in the aircraft industry. On Thursday, Wichita-based Cessna Aircraft Co. announced it was laying off 2,000 more workers, bringing to 4,600 the number of job cuts. Chicago-based Boeing recently announced 10,000 layoffs. And Wichita-based Hawker Beechcraft Corp. laid off nearly 500 workers last month and has warned employees to expect more job cuts soon.
SPEEA conceded that right now the economy is a question in the talks.
"We are seeing a lot of layoffs right now -- here locally as well as nationally," Brewer said. "Not everybody is suffering from this economy. Boeing happens to be one of those companies. They just spent millions on stock buybacks to increase their stock prices. They just announced 10,000 layoffs. However, they are not going to cut production rates. They have billions and billions of dollars of backlog."
Also weighing on the contract talks are persistent fears Boeing may be planning a sale or divestiture of its Wichita plant. Bartlett said he was not aware of plans to sell it.
But union officials noted Boeing made similar statements about its Wichita commercial operations until that sale was already in place, after four years of talks.
Brewer noted negotiators can no longer get a commitment from Boeing that Wichita will be the finishing center for the military refueling tanker if the company wins that contract. He also noted that the facility has been restructured, with the KC135 work mostly moved to Oklahoma City after being in Wichita for decades.
The military tankers for Italy and Japan are ready for delivery and no new work is coming in, Brewer said.
Boeing, responding to union demands for more information, told union negotiators that the possibility of a sale or divestiture is irrelevant to contract negotiations.
"We found that appalling," Brewer said.
But Bartlett said the company is trying to position the Wichita plant for long-term growth.
"We are fighting very hard to win new programs," Bartlett said. "We are trying to make sure we are competitive going forward so our customers will decide to place work here."