Boeing Offer Followed Union Push to 'Give Seattle a Shot,' Buffenbarger Says

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SEATTLE (TheStreet) -- Boeing didn't originally plan to build the 777X in Seattle, but late in the summer the International Association of Machinists began talking with the company about what it would take for Seattle to retain the work. That is how the controversial contract offer being voted on Friday originated.

"The union asked for the opportunity to pitch doing the work in Seattle," said IAM President Tom Buffenbarger in an interview. "We asked Boeing for a shot at keeping it in Seattle." A first round of negotiations led to the offer that workers rejected in a Nov. 13 vote by a 2-to-1 margin. A second round of talks led to the improved offer that is now on the table.

If the offer fails again, Boeing is expected to select a site outside Washington for work on its newest airplane. If the offer is approved, Boeing could bring an estimated 10,000 new jobs to Washington to work at a wing plant that would bring work back to the United States from China and Japan.

The plant could cost $20 billion. "When you get a company to commit those kinds of dollars to brick and mortar, that's work for a long time," Buffenbarger said.

In describing the process that led up to the contract offer, Buffenbarger said he wants to be sure that the 32,000 IAM members have sufficient information. This time, the national union has mailed contract information including economic analysis to the homes of every member. "They have been given the tools to make a decision," he said. "They didn't have that the first time" because the local union didn't provide it.

Boeing's plan to freeze the existing defined benefit pension plan is at the heart of the local union's objection to the proposed contract.

"I don't like the changes to the defined benefit pension plan," said Buffenbarger, who has long fought to retain such plans. But, he noted, "in every other Boeing location our members have given up defined benefit pension plans by a vote. The last place standing on defined benefit pensions for union members is Boeing Seattle. Even the engineers gave it up.

"Preserving the defined benefit pension plan is a noble cause," he said. "But without a job, you won't get a pension."

How did the contract talks with Boeing come about?

As long ago as March 2013, IAM leadership began to hear reports that Boeing was investigating potential locations for an undisclosed project. After Boeing announced in 2010 that it would build 787s in South Carolina, the IAM had "beefed up our surveillance of economic development activities that go on around the country," Buffenbarger said.