* Stoppage could disrupt deliveries of billions' worth of
* Rival Airbus could catch up to Boeing on jet designs
* U.S. mediators due to resume talks involving 23,000
engineers in Jan.
By Alwyn Scott
NEW YORK, Dec 7 Saying a strike now appears
likely, the union representing Boeing Co's 23,000
engineers held picket-line training this week to prepare for a
work stoppage that could disrupt billions of dollars worth of
plane deliveries and help Airbus catch up to Boeing on jet
The preparations come after federal mediators suspended
talks between Boeing and the Society of Professional Engineering
Employees in Aerospace on Wednesday, after two days.
"I think the likelihood of a strike is very high," Ray
Goforth, executive director of SPEEA, said Friday.
The union has not called for a vote to authorize a strike
and said it would not stage a walkout until January at the
earliest because Boeing closes its factories for the last week
Bargaining began in April to replace contracts for engineers
and technical workers, mostly at Boeing's factories near
There is scope for the sides to reach a deal, since talks
with the mediator are due to resume in January.
But the friction is rising between Boeing and its
white-collar engineers, who design the jets and work closely
with machinists to build them.
Last week, Boeing said the sides remain far apart on terms
and called in the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a
Washington, D.C., agency that facilitate labor talks.
That process ended abruptly Wednesday when the two mediators
who attended the meetings in Seattle suspended the talks.
"My guess is that after spending two days with us, they
realized that no deal was going to be possible and that we were
about to plunge into crisis," Goforth said.
He said that if Boeing had made another offer and left the
table, the union would have responded by calling for a strike
"FMCS pushed the pause button to stop that from happening,"
Boeing spokesman Doug Alder said the company "remains
committed to reaching an agreement as soon as possible."
Boeing upped its offer last month but was surprised when
SPEEA did not move toward compromise, he said. Instead of
cutting its proposal, SPEEA asked for higher raises.
Boeing has offered a four-year contract with raises of 4
percent to 4.5 percent each year for SPEEA engineers and 3
percent to 3.5 percent for technicians. The workers got 5
percent raises in the contract that expired last month, and they
have since asked for 6 percent annual.
"We're trying to keep our employees at the top of the
market, but not so far above it that we can't attract work,"
Boeing spokesman Alder said. "We need SPEEA's team engaged in
the process starting from the first day we're back at the
The union says Boeing's current offer would cut retirement
benefits 40 percent and salary growth 22 percent while raising
medical costs 12 percent.
SPEEA has struck twice before: a one-day walkout in 1993,
and a 40-day stoppage in 2000. Both actions occurred early in
the year and after talks with a mediator had failed to produce a
If they walked out, SPEEA's engineers and technical workers
could stop production of 52 jets a month, worth nearly $8
billion at list prices.
The standoff has the potential to affect Boeing's production
even if the union doesn't call a strike, as engineers could work
more slowly and refuse overtime. The union has asked them to do
so, but Boeing said there is no sign of slowdown.
Earlier this month, SPEEA said some workers had sought to
hold a wildcat strike on Wednesday, and the union urged them not
to. Boeing said there was no sign of increased absence.
Analysts say any shutdown in Boeing jet deliveries would
help rival Airbus catch up on competing jets. Airlines are
clamoring for the new planes because the fuel savings they offer
is crucial as oil prices rise.
An engineer walkout also could affect design work on
next-generation jets. Boeing has design projects in the works
for the 737 MAX, the 767 Tanker and 787-9, and is planning two
more, for the 777-X and 787-10X.
Goforth said SPEEA held training on Wednesday and Thursday
for about 150 "captains" who would coordinate several dozen
picket lines blocking entrances to Boeing facilities in
Washington, Oregon, Utah and California.
Picket captains schedule workers to staff the sites, and
also arrange for food, port a-potties, safety and security, he
said. He also said the union had drawn up a budget and has money
to support a 60-day strike.