SEATTLE — Boeing Co. braced Wednesday for a possible strike at its commercial airplane operations after leaders of more than 18,000 Machinists advised workers to reject a final contract offer they deemed "insulting."
Hundreds of workers used their lunch breaks Wednesday to protest the company's offer, as Boeing provided its own take on the contract in an effort to shore up support for the offer.
Union members will vote on the three-year offer today. Under union rules, the contract will automatically be ratified unless two-thirds of covered workers approve a strike.
A tally is expected tonight. If a strike is approved, Machinists would walk off the job hours later at 12:01 a.m. PDT Friday, the day the current three-year pact expires.
"Clearly a strike would be devastating to the Boeing company and everybody associated with the Boeing company," Alan Mulally, head of Boeing's Seattle-based commercial airplane operations, said at a news conference Tuesday, after the company presented its final offer to the union.
Mulally said the company would have no choice but to slowly shut down operations, potentially sending customers to competitors including European archrival Airbus SAS.
Mark Blondin, president of Seattle-based Machinists Lodge 751, which represents workers who assemble commercial airplanes, said Wednesday that Boeing could avert such a potential disaster by giving workers a better offer.
"We are going to shut down their operations, and if he would do the math he would come back to the table," Blondin said.
Boeing spokesman Charles Bickers said the company had no plans to return to the bargaining table.
"The union asked us to put the best and final offer to them on the 30th and that's what we did," Bickers said Wednesday.
Boeing Machinists last went on strike in 1995, when they were out for 69 days. In 2002, 60 percent of union members voted to walk off the job, short of the two-thirds required to authorize a walkout.
In recommending that union members reject the current offer, Machinists leaders said it fell woefully short on the union's top issue: pensions. The company is offering Machinists — who average 49 years of age — $66 per month for every year worked, up from $60 currently.
The union also criticized Boeing's health care and job security offers, and a proposal to eliminate retiree medical benefits for workers hired after July 2006.
Bickers said the proposed contract would still leave Chicago-based Boeing shouldering the bulk of health-care costs. He said the pension offer is part of a responsible plan that will allow Boeing to keep its pension obligations.
"We have a responsible and balanced approach to our pensions, which means that our employees can feel secure about it in their future," he said.
For about 17,500 affected Machinists in the Puget Sound area and Gresham, Ore., the final offer gives workers lump-sum payouts of $6,000 over two years. That total could increase to a maximum of $9,000 if employees choose to roll the money into a retirement plan.
The company also added a 2.5 percent wage increase in the third year of the contract.
Boeing, which has several hundred employees in Utah, also is offering an incentive pay program that would provide five days of pay to Oregon and Washington workers if the company meets financial targets and up to 15 days' worth if the targets are exceeded.
Cost-of-living provisions would boost base wages by about 1 percent in each year of the contract.
For about 900 Machinists workers in Wichita, Kan., the company offered no general wage increase, but a one-time payout of $2,800, which would increase to $4,200 for employees who chose to deposit the money in the Boeing 401(k)-type retirement account.
The company also said it would offer two health plans with the option of no premium, though premiums would increase for most health-care plans.
Machinists Lodge 751 is negotiating for employees in all three states, but certain terms of the contract differ based on location. Workers represented in the talks now receive an average of $59,000 a year. The company said they would earn about $62,500 a year by the end of the new contract, excluding overtime and other extra payouts.