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Boeing machinists go on strike

Machinists at Boeing Co. walked out on strike Friday, forcing the aerospace company to halt production of commercial airplanes after the two sides could not agree on a new labor contract.
Boeing worker Terry Hoskinson shouts as he works a picket line early Friday at the main gate of the company's 737 commercial airplanes assemby plant in Renton, Wash. Machinists walked out on strike Friday, forcing the aerospace giant to halt production of commercial airplanes after the two sides could not agree on a new labor contract.Ted .S. Warren / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Boeing Machinists went on strike Friday, forcing the aerospace company to halt production of commercial airplanes after the two sides failed to agree on a new labor contract.

The strike affects about 18,400 Machinists in the Seattle area, Wichita, Kan., and Gresham, Ore.

About 40 picketers were at Boeing’s main gate early Friday in Renton, the plant south of Seattle that assembles 737s, chanting at morning commuters, “What time is it? Union time!” and “Union power!”

Some passing cars honked in support, and one woman slowed down to hand off a bag of McDonald’s breakfast food to cheering strikers.

Picketer Brent Oliver of Des Moines wore a baseball cap bearing the name of Airbus, the European consortium that is Boeing’s main competitor. Jeff Hughes of Covington carried a sign used in the 48-day 1989 strike, wrapped in plastic to protect it. Brad Herrick of Kent brought three dogs decked out in T-shirts that identified them as the “scab patrol.”

“It’s one thing to bring us a bad contract during an industry downturn, but it’s something else to bring us a bad contract when things are looking up,” said Paul Veltcamp, a nine-year employee picketing 30 miles north at the Everett plant, where 747s are built.

He said union members feel Boeing’s contract offer is worse than the pact negotiated in 2002 that expired Friday.

“We’re not asking for the moon,” said 30-year Boeing worker David Tennent. “Just give us something so we can be proud to work the Boeing Company.”

In Wichita earlier, 20-year Boeing employee Sandi Wiley said she wasn’t walking the picket line for herself — “You do it for the next generation” — in her case her 8-year-old daughter Leslie.

“I am worried she will have a worse standard of living than I have,” Wiley said.

The Machinists, who assemble Boeing’s commercial airplanes and some key components, voted overwhelmingly Thursday to strike, rejecting a three-year contract proposal their leaders called “insulting.”

A Boeing spokesman said the strike meant the company would immediately stop assembling commercial airplanes, dealing a blow to the jet maker just as business at its commercial airplanes division appeared to be picking up.

“We don’t intend to assemble airplanes during this strike,” Boeing spokesman Charles Bickers said.

“If the company wants to talk, they can call me,” Mark Blondin, president of Seattle-based Machinists District Lodge 751, said after announcing 86 percent approval for the strike authorization on Thursday.

Union leaders were unwilling to provide actual vote tallies for the strike authorization. But had members fallen short of the two-thirds vote needed to strike, the contract would automatically have taken effect.

Company officials earlier said they feared a strike would send customers to competitors, notably rival Airbus SAS, and questioned whether the commercial operations could ever recover.

Bickers said after the strike vote that the Chicago-based company could continue to do other work, such as designing new aircraft, but that there was no way to build planes without those workers.

Union leaders said the contract offer fell short on top issues including pension payments and increased health care costs. District Lodge 751 is negotiating for employees in all three states, although some terms differ based on location.

The union last went on strike in 1995, when workers walked out for 69 days. The vote to strike again Thursday was greeted with cheers by union members.

Larry Weckhorst, a 16-year Boeing veteran who lives in SeaTac, said he knew the strike was coming because “the mood was just different from three years ago” when the Machinists accepted what they considered a sub-par contract because of the airline industry’s dismal state after the 2001 attacks.

Now “the production rates are going up, the stock price is going up,” the 47-year-old said, adding, “That pension (issue) is huge. Look at how old our work force is.”

The Machinists average 49 years of age. The company offered a 10 percent pension increase — $66 per month for every year worked, up from $60 currently. The union said that fell short of what its workers deserve.

The union also was critical of increased health care costs and a proposal to eliminate retiree medical benefits for workers hired after July 2006, with the exception of laid-off workers who are recalled.

For about 900 union-represented workers in Wichita, the company offered no general wage increase but a one-time payout of $2,800, which would have increased to $4,200 for employees who chose to deposit the money in the Boeing 401(k)-type retirement account.

Workers represented in the talks now receive an average of $59,000 a year. The company had said they would earn about $62,500 a year by the end of the new contract, excluding overtime and other extra payouts.