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Sat, Oct 28, 2000 EDT
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Boeing, Engineers Reach Labor Agreement
By Tim Klass   Associated Press
SEATTLE — A tentative agreement was reached today to end a 38-day strike by thousands of Boeing Co. engineers and technical workers, one of the largest white-collar walkouts in U.S. history.

Members of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace will vote on the three-year pact Sunday, and union leaders recommended approval.

The union said the deal includes guaranteed wage increases of at least 9 percent over the life of the contract as well as cash bonuses of up to $2,500, a key issue in a strike that had grown increasingly rancorous since it began Feb. 9.

A company demand for first-time employee copayments toward health insurance premiums was dropped, the union said, and health coverage would be extended to unmarried domestic partners of the affected workers.

"We wanted respect for our contributions and a better future for our families and our company," SPEEA executive director Charles Bofferding said in a statement. "We believe the tentative agreement ... delivers on those demands and can make a strong company stronger."

Chairman Philip M. Condit, an engineer and former SPEEA member, said in a statement today he hopes "we can look back on this time as a turning point, a time when we more clearly recognized the importance of listening to and seeking to understand each other ... Both sides worked very hard and compromised."

Lawrence W. McCracken, a Boeing spokesman, would not say which if any of the major changes sought by the company were included in the settlement. The statement said company officials would not discuss details of the agreement until after the ratification vote.

In early trading on the New York Stock Exchange, Boeing shares climbed 7.2 percent, or $2.56 1/4 a share, to $38.18 3/4.

C. Richard Barnes, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, said he was optimistic about ratification of the deal reached early today after meetings in Washington, D.C.

"The parties, both parties, worked extremely hard," Barnes said in a telephone interview from Washington. "There seemed to be a genuine level of satisfaction among both parties."

The union represents about 22,350 Boeing employees, mostly in Washington state, but also in Kansas, California, Florida, Oregon, Texas and Utah. About 14,000 are dues-paying members.

SPEEA leaders have said more than 17,000 employees went on strike, mostly in the Seattle area. Boeing estimates put the number at 15,000.

Boeing has said the number of commercial airplane deliveries has been off by 50 percent or more, while military contracts also have been hurt. However, production at the world's largest airplane maker has continued since assembly employees are required by contract to work regardless of what other employees do.

The union said picketing would continue until the pact is ratified.

On the picket lines in front of Boeing's military division this morning, strikers had mixed feelings about the agreement.

"I think it'll get approved, but it's a compromise," said Dave Keil, who works on the company's Joint Strike Fighter project for the military.

"They didn't touch our benefits, and that was key for us," added picket captain Matt Renaud. "Looking at it that way, it's a win for the union."

This was the first large strike in SPEEA's 56-year history, and some members had questioned whether the white-collar workers were willing to take on the company. The union's only previous strike was a one-day walkout in 1992.

Barnes said the SPEEA settlement was reached because of "some new thinking" but would not disclose the source or nature of the breakthrough.

Key provisions of the settlement, as described on the union's Web site, include:

— Guaranteed pay increases of 3 percent a year in the professional unit and 4 percent, 3 percent and 3 percent for the technical unit. In addition, additional money would be set aside for discretionary pay hikes and promotional increases.

Past SPEEA contracts and previous offers have been based mainly on discretionary pay hikes.

— Cash bonuses of $1,000 after 30 days, $500 following delivery of 225 planes this year and $1,000 after the delivery of 491 planes if that total is reached by March 1, 2001. If the targets are missed through no fault of SPEAA-covered workers, the bonuses would be paid anyway. Neither of the previous two offers included bonuses.

— Extension of health coverage to unmarried domestic partners, a provision Boeing offered to non-union workers earlier.

In addition, Boeing withdrew demands for monthly health insurance copayments, an increase in deductibles and reduced life insurance benefits.

The strike drew attention for its solidarity. Last week, the nation's most powerful union, the AFL-CIO, said it would give the striking workers financial aid.

Both the engineers and technical workers — they are separate units within SPEEA — rejected two earlier offers, one by more than 98 percent on Nov. 11 and the other by closer margins Feb. 2.

The latest round of talks began Thursday morning in Washington and included for the first time AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka and James Dagnon, Boeing's senior vice president for personnel.

Their presence at the table "was a tremendously important factor," Barnes said.

"We are very pleased that the longest and largest white-collar labor dispute in the aerospace industry has been settled," Barnes said in a statement. "I want to commend the leadership of the company and union for their hard work and their commitment to reaching this agreement.

The union had sought more guaranteed pay raises and cash bonuses like those received by production workers represented by the Machinists, Boeing's largest union. Boeing had insisted on mostly selective pay increases, reductions in life insurance benefits and some changes in health insurance.

Negotiations broke down Feb. 27 despite the efforts of Barnes, and earlier this month, Boeing declared an impasse, which the union disputed.

Boeing's value has reportedly fallen by about $5.3 billion since the walkout began and that strikers have lost more than $125 million in wages, based on a company estimate of $3.4 million a day.

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