Boeing strike felt on Whidbey

"Photo: Dan Blanchette of Freeland and Mark Swanson of Bothell picket at the railhead in Mukilteo's Japanese Gulch Monday, attempting to persuade Burlington Northern Railroad supervisors not to deliver a load of airplane parts to Boeing.Matt Johnson / staff photoSaying that their wages are well below the industry average and that proposed cuts in their benefits are unacceptable, thousands of Boeing engineers walked off the job last Wednesday as their union attempts to negotiate a better contract.Among the approximately 20,000 Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) union members on picket lines this week are dozens of Whidbey Island residents. The SPEEA membership rejected two contract offers from Boeing -- one in December and one in January. Boeing engineer and Scatchet Head resident Steve Cole said that when the company proposed in its recent contract offers that engineers and technical workers must pay more for their health benefits and work more mandatory overtime for little more pay, SPEEA members decided to call the union's first extended strike ever. Cole, a 20-year Boeing veteran, said he was all for striking.Not only is it a big deal for our union ... but it's extremely unusual, he said Thursday.The strike can only contribute to what Cole identified as Boeing's poor reputation in the engineering community. While the company is competitive when it comes to hiring new engineers, Cole said small annual raises put veteran Boeing engineers near the bottom of the engineering pay scale nationwide. Engineers picketing in Mukilteo Monday said the $55,000 annual salary engineers average at the company is not enough to compensate them for their work, their educational background, or their dedication to the company. Freeland's Dan Blanchette said he is prepared to stay at his picketing station in Mukilteo's Japanese Gulch until Boeing management comes up with a better deal for its engineers. He stood along the railroad tracks in the gulch Monday along with about eight other engineers attempting to stop trains from shipping aircraft parts into Boeing's Everett assembly facility. The picket line did convince union-affiliated train engineers to disembark before crossing the picket line, forcing Burlington Northern supervisors to drive the train the last few miles to Boeing.Blanchette said he does not know exactly how long he will be on the picket line, but he did say it will be one day longer than Boeing management can hold out.As long as it takes, Blanchette said.The company will likely need the SPEEA members back sometime in the near future. Boeing engineers are not only responsible for drawing up the plans that eventually become aircraft, but also inspect the quality of work done on the company's assembly line. Even after aircraft are delivered to customers, the company's engineers stay involved with their work. They have the final say on some repairs airlines perform on their planes. Without the appropriate engineer sign-off, Steve Cole said, a plane has to sit on the ground.Even so, the engineers believe it will take some time before SPEEA has Boeing over a barrel. Clinton's Joe McDougald said waiting out his employer could be difficult for his family. The engineers will receive one more paycheck from Boeing during the next two weeks, but after that they are on their own. How long they will be on their own is in Boeing's hands.I think it's up to the company, McDougald said.Some SPEEA members will be able to hold out longer than others. Steve Cole said he does not necessarily have to go back to work at all. If need be, he said, he could start his own engineering company or work for someone else. Most engineers and technical workers at the company cannot say that, he admitted. But they are resolved to stay out until the company realizes how much it needs its engineers.In another week or two, it's definitely going to start to hurt (Boeing), Cole said.The engineers and technical workers voted down the December contract offer by 99 and 98 percent of membership, respectively. A second offer failed by 51 and 62 percent in January.Boeing's spokesperson, Peter Conte, could not be reached for comment about the SPEEA strike."

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