NEW YORK (Reuters) - Tension between Boeing Co (BA.N) and its union engineers notched higher Tuesday, as the jet maker criticized the union’s decision to put the latest contract offer to a vote rather than continue negotiations.
The moves follow months of talks between the two sides to replace labor contracts that expire October 6.
The rising tensions raise the specter of a strike that could jeopardize Boeing’s engineering abilities as it considers launching new models based on its 787 Dreamliner and 777 jets.
A strike would also raise concern about the jet maker’s ability to deliver on its huge backlog of orders, and would recall a costly 2008 strike by Boeing machinists.
On Monday, two bargaining committees from the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, or SPEEA, voted unanimously to reject Boeing’s latest contract, which would cover 23,000 employees, and sent it to members with the recommendation that they vote it down.
The union said the offer would increase the cost of medical benefits and change retiree benefits, and offered lower pay raises than the expiring four-year agreement.
It also said it will prepare ballots and send them to members for tallying after October 1, and that a separate vote would be necessary to authorize a strike.
“It is our hope that a strong rejection of these disrespectful contract offers will make it clear to Boeing that it must stop attacking its engineers and technical workers and negotiate an offer that respects our contributions to the company’s success,” the union said in a statement.
Late Tuesday, Boeing took an equally unusual step by sending its own letter to SPEEA members, criticizing the union for halting negotiations.
“We expressed our willingness to meet throughout this week with SPEEA’s negotiating team in order to hear the union’s response, answer questions and discuss any counter proposals — especially since we have time left before contract expiration,” Boeing said. “The SPEEA negotiations team, for their own reasons, made a decision to cease negotiations and use this unconventional approach.”
Boeing declined to make officials available to comment.
Ray Goforth, executive director of SPEEA, said in an interview the union put the contract to members because Boeing had indicated in its talks “that they didn’t believe the SPEEA negotiating team really speaks for the members.”
He said the contract would take away medical benefits from retirees, who would no longer be part of the contract, and allow the company to make changes to the medical and 401(k) plans without consulting the union.
Goforth said the proposal offers engineers raises of 3.5 percent per year over four years. For technicians, pay would rise 3 percent the first year and 2.5 for the next three years. For both groups, the minimum guaranteed raise is 1 percent.
That compares with 5 percent per year in the current contract, he said.
Goforth said he does not expect a strike right away. He said he expects SPEEA members will reject the offer. Then “we’re going to go back to the bargaining table.”
But, he added: “If Boeing comes back with some nonsensical offer like they’ve given here, then we’ll probably seek a strike authorization.”
Reporting by Alwyn Scott; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Paul Tait