SEATTLE - Under pressure from national union leaders, machinists in Washington state took a late-night vote that defied their local union bosses by narrowly approving a new labor contract that secures a coveted plane project for the Seattle area but moves workers away from pensions.
The tight count exposed deep rifts in the once-powerful union. But with plenty of states lining up to give Boeing exactly what it wanted to get work on the 777X, the aerospace giant had a tremendous advantage.
The company, the state's governor and national union leaders all hailed the contract as a vital boost to the region's economy, but to some observers the vote dealt a blow to local union influence.
"It shows that even a strong local is vulnerable and has a limited defensibility to slow the tide of concessions that has been going on across the country," said Leon Grunberg, a sociology professor at the University of Puget Sound who co-authored a book, "Turbulence: Boeing and the State of American Workers."
He added Saturday, "This is happening with a company that's doing very well financially."
Members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers approved an eight-year contract extension late Friday by 51 percent, a turnaround from November when the same workers voted down a previous offer by 67 percent.
The passing margin was about 600 votes of about 23,900 counted, according to Wilson Ferguson, president of a local unit of District 751.
Ferguson said Saturday that the vote diminished the local union's power because it conceded some hard-fought benefits they won't be getting back.
Foes of the contract opposed the idea of freezing the machinists' pensions and moving workers to a defined-contribution savings plan.
"The very fact that Boeing was making these demands in the first place just has to be seen as discouraging for average workers," said Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at the University of Washington who has a forthcoming book "What Unions No Longer Do."
"This is a very strong union, and if you have a strong union, being forced into givebacks of this sort ... then you can just imagine how little leverage other workers have when negotiating," he added.
But Richard Gritta, a finance professor at Portland State University, said Boeing needed to gain these concessions to remain competitive in the "dog-eat-dog industry" that has seen Boeing and Airbus trade dominance.
"It's a very tough industry. To gain these concessions from labor is critical," he said Saturday.
Local union officials had urged their 30,000 members to oppose the deal, arguing that the proposal surrendered too much at a time of company profitability. They had opposed taking a vote at all but were overruled by national leaders in the Machinists union.
A number of political leaders, including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, praised the vote, which supporters said keeps thousands of well-paying jobs in the state and solidifies Boeing's presence in the Seattle area.
Some local elected officials had said there was no other choice but to vote "yes."
Grunberg, the University of Puget Sound professor, said, "Everybody was scared about Boeing moving this huge new production out of state, so I think there was tremendous anxiety about losing this production."
(c) 2014 ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved.
Original headline: Labor influence takes hit in Boeing vote
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