By Alwyn Scott
NEW YORK Feb 18 Ray Goforth leads a union of
23,000 Boeing Co engineers who revel in their
pocket-protector image. Their rally posters and buttons read "No
Nerds, No Birds." They use spreadsheets to argue about details
of their labor contracts.
And they rarely strike. In nearly 70 years of
representation, the members of the Society of Professional
Engineering Employees in Aerospace have walked out on just two
occasions for a total of 41 days - earning them a reputation for
being pushovers in negotiations.
But under Goforth as executive director, the union has
marched steadily, and with a new militancy, toward a strike that
could affect how quickly Boeing can implement a fix to its
grounded 787 Dreamliner.
SPEEA Members are voting this week on whether to reject
Boeing's latest contract offer and authorize a strike, as
Goforth and other union leaders recommend.
On Tuesday, the union will tally the votes. And even the
union is not sure of the outcome. "It's really too close to
tell," said Tom McCarty, president of SPEEA.
Goforth said: "The vote is going to be 60-40, but I don't
know which way."
At stake is an estimated $200 million a month in cash that
Boeing is losing by not delivering the 787, which is grounded
until a fix for its burning battery problem is found and
regulators approve it.
A walkout by engineers also could slow or halt production on
Boeing's other airplane lines for the 737, 777, 767 and 747,
several of which have been speeded up to capitalize on a huge
book of orders.
Critics say Goforth's more aggressive approach has put SPEEA
in a difficult position. If members reject the contract and
approve the strike authorization, they are hurting Boeing when
it newest aircraft needs them. But if members do not vote that
way, they are defying the recommendations of its leaders,
"Goforth has billed this as a low-risk way to get Boeing
back to the bargaining table," said Doug Alder, a Boeing
spokesman. "We don't see it that way."
Governor Jay Inslee of Washington state, where Boeing does
nearly all of its aircraft manufacturing, is also worried about
any disruption. "Both partners have a responsibility to prevent
that," he said, referring to Boeing and the union.
Some criticism of SPEEA has cropped up on local Internet
message boards. "I will accept this final offer hands down and
try to put these childish and embarrassing negotiations behind
us," a poster identifying himself as a SPEEA engineer wrote in
commenting on a recent Seattle Times story about the union vote.
He criticized SPEEA for rejecting a lucrative contract with
5 percent annual raises during tough economic times.
McCarty, the SPEEA president, said the offer is "a lot
better than it was initially, thanks to our efforts. I don't
think we should be embarrassed. We moved the company past their
The sticking point is Boeing's insistence on putting new
hires into a defined-contribution retirement plan instead of the
traditional pension SPEEA members have. SPEEA said the new plan
pays 40 percent less over a 30-year career. Boeing says it
believes the union is undervaluing the plan.
Goforth contends that despite the 787 problems, Boeing is
living through a modern-day gold rush. High oil prices and easy
financing have spurred airlines to order record numbers of new,
fuel-efficient planes. Boeing is speeding up its factories to
deliver them as fast as possible.
With Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Goforth, 45, has given
the union a social media presence. But he says his actions
simply reflect the will of the members, whose views filter up
through the democratic structure of the union. "Because I'm the
public face, people have the mistaken impression that I run
things," he says. "None of these decisions are taken by me or
the executive committee."
As the first non-engineer to run SPEEA in more than 20
years, Goforth is able to take a stronger stance. Prior leaders
were engineers on leave from Boeing to run the union, and had
some worried about their own careers, union members say.
"Ray is very focused on what's good for the members," said
SPEEA Council Chairman Joel Funfar.
He's not afraid to play hardball with the company. Some say
the company views him as the devil, but it allows the union to
play good-cop, bad-cop during negotiations, said McCarty.
"Ray can go right up to the line and step over it if he
feels it's appropriate, and not be intimidated or concerned
about how it will affect his career," he said.
A transplant to the Northwest from California, Goforth
majored in political economy at Evergreen State College with a
focus on post-industrial economic systems. He then earned a
doctorate degree in international and comparative law at the
University of Washington.
He has large brown eyes that reflect his quiet, thoughtful
demeanor. His belief in justice is so strong that he gave his
three children that word as their middle name. In the mid-1990s,
he worked for several years at the state attorney general's
education office, where he negotiated on Washington's behalf
against the state-worker unions at state colleges and
Millicent Newhouse, who was Goforth's supervisor then, said
his sympathies were with the opposing side. "To his credit, I
recall him being very capable of doing the job," she said. "But
I think on personal level it wasn't always easy to do."
He became SPEEA executive director in 2008, after 10 years
at Professional and Technical Employees Local 17, a union
representing public-sector engineers and information technology
Goforth sees unions as a crucial check on corporate power,
and reflecting the members views. In October, SPEEA members
rejected Boeing's early contract by a 96 percent margin.
Goforth said he does not view the vote as either win or lose
for the union leadership. He said members recently gave him a
standing ovation for negotiating a good deal. "And some of them
were saying, 'I'm voting yes to the contract.'"
Ultimately, it is the members' call, he said. "If they
reject it, we'll go back to the bargaining table. If they
accept, then it's job well done and we move on."