Boeing Strike Likely To Last Into November Or Longer

With the collapse of revived Boeing contract talks after barely two days, Machinists' union strike is likely to continue well into November and possibly longer.

SEATTLE (AP) -- With the collapse of revived contract talks after barely two days, a strike that shut down Boeing Co.'s commercial aircraft plants Sept. 6 appears likely to continue well into November and possibly longer.

Neither Boeing nor the Machinists union appears to have softened its position on the thorniest issue, job security, and the talks that concluded Monday never got to the nearly equally important questions of pay, retirement benefits or medical coverage.

"We felt, we still feel, we need to get the jobs addressed first," the union's chief negotiator, Mark Blondin, said Tuesday. "They're interested in eliminating the union in the workplace ... long-term, that appears to be their goal."

Boeing representatives would not comment on specifics of the talks Monday evening and did not immediately return a call for comment Tuesday.

In a statement released late Monday, Doug Kight, Boeing vice president of human resources and chief negotiator, wrote: "We want to resolve this strike so employees can return to work, but we cannot sacrifice our ability to continuously improve productivity and our long-term competitiveness for an agreement."

It's the second walkout at Boeing in three years and the fourth in less than two decades by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents about 25,000 electricians, riveters, forklift operators and other hourly workers in and around Seattle, 1,500 in Gresham, Ore., and 750 in Wichita, Kan.

If anything the battle lines have hardened, indicating the strike could eclipse a 69-day walkout in 1995 and become the longest at Boeing since a 140-day strike in 1948 -- bad news for subcontractors, airlines waiting for more efficient aircraft and passengers eager for more flight options.

Despite the economic turmoil and massive employment cuts in other sectors, Machinists union members remain determined to hold out for better pay, retirement benefits and medical coverage as well as job security.

Boeing is just as determined to hold the line on costs and management control, especially on which jobs are done in-house.

"It is a central issue to the whole bargaining process," said David J. Olson, chairman emeritus of the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies and professor emeritus of political science at the University of Washington. "They can't get to the other issues that remain on the table -- still important issues, such as wages -- until they resolve it."

Less than a week before the renewed talks, aerospace industry analyst Richard Safran of Goldman Sachs advised clients, "Our new working assumption is that the strike lasts through November, and we believe this is a more conservative assumption ... there is risk that the strike lasts into December."

Olson would not venture a forecast on the length of the strike but said there it could be prolonged because of "a deeper bitterness, a greater distance between the two parties" than in 1995, when the economy was less globalized and job security still an emerging issue.

"I think both sides will have to feel the pain before this will get settled," he said.

Olson said there was even a remote chance that President Bush could declare that the strike is "eroding the national interest" and invoke the Taft-Hartley Act after the elections Nov. 4, ordering the Machinists back to work for an 80-day cooling off period and sending both sides back to the table.

Taft-Hartley, enacted in 1947, was last invoked in October 2002 to end an employer lockout of more than 25,000 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in a contract dispute that had shut down West Coast ports. It was the first use of the law since 1978, and Olson said it would be an unlikely and ineffective tactic this time, too heavy-handed to achieve more than a short-lived suspension of hostilities.

Only collective bargaining is likely to work in the long run, however long a run it may be, he said.

Pickets were subdued on a chilly, damp Tuesday morning without firewood for their burn barrel outside the 737 jet factory in Renton.

"I was pretty upset" that the talks collapsed, said Tonya Thompson, hired by Boeing just a year ago. Her husband still is working as a truck driver for another company and they have no children, but "it's a big financial struggle," she said.

Still, nobody was talking about throwing in the towel.

Strikers can last "probably at least a couple more months," said Wes Lickiss, a 38-year Boeing veteran who helps get fuselages from rail cars onto the assembly line. "We're a pretty strong union."

Blondin and Tom Wroblewski, president of Machinists District Lodge 751, said the sticking point in the latest talks was Boeing's insistence on moving to replace about 2,000 union workers who distribute parts, deliver materials and perform similar tasks with outside suppliers and subcontractors.

"The words 'flexibility' and 'competitiveness' for Boeing appear to mean eliminating IAM jobs," Wroblewski said.

Boeing offered to keep the 2,000 affected workers on the payroll for the term of the contract "but that over time they're not going to be there," Blondin said.

Outsourcing has been a growing issue since the early 1990s. The Machinists want at least have the right to bid against outside companies for work they traditionally have done, noting that problems with subcontractors caused repeated delays in testing and delivery of the all-new 787 jet well before the strike.

The walkout has further pushed back that program, virtually eliminating any chance of a test flight in the fourth quarter of 2008 and probably forcing more postponements of deliveries to customers anxious for the fuel-saving, technologically advanced aircraft.

Analysts have said they think Boeing is losing $100 million or more in deferred revenue each day of the strike, for a total approaching $4 billion.

Union members get $150 a week in strike pay, less than one-seventh of their average from Boeing. Blondin said those payments from the union's $140 million strike fund, which continues to receive dues revenue from members in non-striking locals, remain secure for another four or five months.

"Our fund was well-protected" from the recent banking and stock market turmoil, he said.

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