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Boeing workers vote to strike; contract extended

SEATTLE – Boeing Co. aircraft assembly workers voted overwhelmingly to strike for the second time in three years, but union leaders agreed to hold off on the walkout for 48 hours at the request of Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and a federal mediator.

The vote late Wednesday was 87 percent in favor of a strike that was to have begun at 12:01 a.m. today, after the expiration of the old contract covering more than 27,000 workers.

With the extension, Boeing spokesman Tim Healy said the two sides would meet with a federal mediator today.

In separate balloting, union members also voted 80 percent to reject Boeing’s third three-year contract offer, which included pay raises averaging 11 percent.

The offer, which Boeing described as its “best and final,” included bonuses totaling at least $5,000, raises averaging 11 percent, pension increases and a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment – $34,000 in average pay and benefit gains per employee, according to the company.

Announcement of the 48-hour extension at the Machinists union hall drew booing and shouting from about 100 angry shop stewards and other activists that frequently made it impossible for Mark Blondin, the union’s chief negotiator, and Tom Wroblewski, president of Machinists District Lodge 751, to be heard.

“We have told you all along that our job as negotiators is to negotiate a contract that is acceptable to you, not to negotiate a strike,” Blondin said.

When the shouting subsided, he said Boeing would have to come up with a substantially better offer to avoid a walkout.

Another Boeing spokesman, Jim Proulx, would not say whether Boeing would sweeten its offer.

“We’re disappointed that the IAM opted to reject what is truly an excellent package,” Proulx said. “We agreed to focus on the key issues … on understanding their key concerns.”

Blondin left no room for doubt when confronted by Randy Carroll, a mechanic in Auburn, after the announcement.

“If we can’t do it in 48 hours, brother, it’s on,” Blondin said.

“He’s got a division within his union and that’s not good,” Carroll said after Blondin left. “It’s really iffy what’s going to happen.”

Some union members may walk out despite the extension, he warned.

“You don’t get a strike vote and then go back,” Carroll said.

He would not predict how many might disregard the stay-at-work directive, though.

Other union leaders supported the extension.

“I think the involvement of the governor of that state and federal mediators is a good thing,” said Steve Rooney, president of Machinists District 70 in Wichita.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers represents 25,000 employees in District 751 in and around Seattle, about 1,500 in District 24 in Gresham, Ore., a Portland suburb, and about 750 who do military work for Boeing in Wichita, Kan.

In 2005, about 18,400 Machinists in the Pacific Northwest and Wichita struck for four weeks, forcing the company to halt commercial airplane production.

Analysts say a strike could cost Boeing about $100 million per day in deferred revenue. In 2005, Boeing was unable to deliver more than two dozen airplanes as scheduled because of that strike.