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In rare union split, national Machinists leaders order vote on Boeing contract offer

Sun., Dec. 22, 2013

SEATTLE – Despite the vehement opposition of local union leaders, the national headquarters of the Machinists union has ordered a vote on Boeing’s revised offer to extend their contract, setting the stage for a divisive battle that could decide whether the company’s 777X plane is built in Everett.

International Association of Machinists headquarters representative Rich Michalski said the vote is set for Jan 3. But the local leadership of Puget Sound-area IAM District 751, which declined to put the new offer to a membership vote, made clear Saturday it will continue to oppose the new offer.

“Because of the massive take-aways, the Union is adamantly recommending members reject this offer,” a message on the District 751 website said.

Boeing has previously said that a vote to accept the revised offer would mean that Everett gets to assemble the new 777X and that the jet’s giant composite wing would be fabricated in a Boeing facility nearby.

Boeing issued a statement Saturday saying that “the terms of Boeing’s enhanced contract offer to the IAM on December 12 stand. If ratified by the membership, Boeing would honor that contract.”

Such an outcome would secure thousands of Boeing jobs here for decades and abruptly end the national site search for another location to do the work.

Some IAM members who voted Nov. 13 to reject the first Boeing offer may later have been swayed toward accepting it because Boeing then launched a very public national site search, in which 21 other states have put in bids to displace Washington.

Boeing has said it will make a decision about a site for the 777X facilities early in the new year.

However, the continued hard-line stance of the local union leadership means the outcome of the vote is unpredictable.

Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in western Massachusetts, said it’s “extremely rare to have a local and a national union at loggerheads, particularly in a bargaining situation when unity is supposed to be shown.”

“This is an extreme situation,” Chaison said. “I think the national Machinists (leadership) feels that the local is out of control and is taking too militant a stance and jeopardizing jobs.

“It’s a very dangerous game the national union is playing,” he added. “It’s a display of disunity that can be interpreted by the company to be a sign of weakness.”

The leader of the Machinists in Washington state, District 751 President Tom Wroblewski, has repeatedly said no new vote is necessary because the revised Boeing offer he rejected earlier this month is so similar to the original offer turned down by a 2-to-1 margin in November.

Wilson Ferguson, president of the Local A unit of District 751, said the local leadership is outraged by the decision of the national leadership.

“The International can force a vote on us,” Ferguson said. “But Tom Wroblewski is standing strong. He’s saying the leadership will not endorse this latest proposal.

“I believe he’s going to be vocal about it,” Ferguson added. “This is a bad deal, and we need to turn it down.”

The local leadership rejects the Boeing proposal largely because it would freeze the traditional pension and replace it with a defined contribution retirement savings plan funded by the company.

Ferguson also criticized the timing of the vote.

Monday is the last workday for most machinists before the Christmas break, and they don’t return to work until Jan. 2.

And many union members take an extra couple of days leave and plan vacations, said Ferguson, so they may not even be back in town for the Friday vote.

“This is strategic,” Ferguson said. He said the International headquarters is timing the vote so that it is difficult “to get the word out of the recommendation of our leadership.”

Leon Grunberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Puget Sound, who in 2010 co-authored “Turbulence,” a book that surveyed the attitudes of Boeing union members toward the company, said the clash between the local and the International comes down to radically different perspectives.

He said the local Machinist leadership likely views the standoff with Boeing as a tactical battle, similar to many episodes of brinkmanship in the past.

“It seems they think Boeing does want to build the 777X here and it’s a question of staying firm and Boeing will come back to the table with a sweeter offer,” Grunberg said.

In contrast, he said, the International may take a bigger picture view, looking at the ongoing retrenchment in labor unions nationwide as manufacturing work moves to nonunion or “right-to-work” states in the Southeast.

Boeing is threatening to move more union jobs out to such states.

Grunberg said the International may have acted because they’ve decided “this is not the time to play poker.”

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