* Largest 'professional' group accepts contract offer
* Smaller 'technical' group rejects it
* Both groups authorize strike as talks set to resume
By Bill Rigby
SEATTLE, Feb 19 (Reuters) - The largest group of engineers working at Boeing Co approved the planemaker's latest contract offer in a vote on Tuesday, likely paving the way for a full agreement as Boeing attempts to focus its resources on fixing battery problems on its 787 Dreamliner.
However, members of the union representing about 23,000 engineers also authorized it to call a strike, giving the union some leverage as parties head back toward negotiations.
According to the Seattle-based Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), its "professional" members - who perform the main engineering duties on Boeing planes - voted narrowly in favor of accepting the contract, while a smaller group of "technical" members - who support the engineers - voted to reject it. Both groups voted in favor of authorizing the union to call a strike.
The groups negotiate together, but their contracts are separate.
The partial resolution of the drawn-out labor talks is a chink of light for Boeing, which is struggling to get to the bottom of battery malfunctions on its 787 and needs engineers in its factories to carry out its planned production ramp-up.
"There are pathways to a negotiated agreement available," said Ray Goforth, executive director of SPEEA, in a statement.
"With this second rejection by technical workers of Boeing takeaways, it's time for the company to stop wasting resources and improve its offer to reflect the value and contributions technical workers bring to Boeing. That way, we can avoid a strike and focus on fixing the problems of the 787 and restoring customer confidence in Boeing."
Boeing welcomed the professional members' acceptance, but said it was "deeply disappointed" that technical employees rejected the offer and authorized a strike.
"Our goal throughout this entire process was to make sure SPEEA-represented employees were rewarded for the contributions they bring to this company every single day," said Ray Conner, head of Boeing's commercial airplanes unit.
The two sides have differed over Boeing's plan to ax defined benefit pensions for new employees - standard procedure for most companies in recent times - and introduce a defined contribution retirement plan, effectively shifting more cost onto the employees.
"The realities of the market require us to make changes so we can invest in new products and keep winning in this competitive environment, which will allow us to continue to provide a solid future for our team," said Conner.
Washington state governor Jay Inslee urged both parties to settle differences after the vote.
"I spoke with representatives of SPEEA and the Boeing Company tonight to urge both sides to resume negotiations and bring about a resolution as soon as possible," he said in a statement.