On deadline day for states around the U.S. to submit their bids for the 777X project, Boeing Commercial Airplanes Chief Executive Ray Conner met Tuesday with the Machinists union officials who last month led the rejection of the company’s contract offer.
Conner met with the International Association of Machinists (IAM) District 751 council officials known as business reps and with District 751 President Tom Wroblewski at Boeing Commercial Airplanes headquarters in Renton.
“The meeting was congenial and 777X was discussed,” said one person with knowledge of the talks.
The meeting is the first sign since the Nov. 13 rejection vote that union and management may re-engage and that a labor deal to win the 777X for Washington might still be salvaged.
Spokesmen for both sides warned against making too much of the session.
Still, said Alex Pietsch, director of Gov. Jay Inslee’s aerospace office, “We see this as a positive sign. ... Talking is good.”
After Boeing made its offer to extend the Machinists contract until 2024 with some major concessions in exchange for building the 777X jet here, it was the business reps who, in two private union leadership meetings in early November, vehemently denounced the company offer.
By a 2-to-1 majority, they opposed even putting it to a vote of the membership.
When the business reps were overruled by the national leadership and Wroblewski, many of them actively worked for a no vote.
The rank-and-file duly delivered that vote — again by a 2-to-1 majority.
That verdict launched a state-versus-state frenzy when Boeing opened up the 777X site search competition to all comers.
The company eventually asked for formal bids from 15 sites; they had to be submitted by 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Boeing spokesman Doug Alder confirmed Conner met with union representatives, but added, “We are not in negotiations. These are conversations.” He said the discussions are private and declined to provide details.
In a statement on the Machinists’ website, the union said the meeting “was not a formal negotiation session, but instead was a chance for both sides to give feedback. No proposals were exchanged.”
Pietsch said the governor has been encouraging the company and the Machinists to resume conversation. “We are hopeful this is the beginning of a continued dialogue,” he said.
Until Tuesday, that prospect had looked bleak.
This week, rank-and-file union members got a letter from IAM International President Tom Buffenbarger defending how the national leadership had handled the negotiations with Boeing.
Buffenbarger wrote that during initial conversations in June, Boeing management told the union “that without an agreement with the IAM, Washington State would have very little chance of landing the 777X project.”
However, the rank-and-file rejected what Buffenbarger described as Boeing’s final offer, which asked them to freeze their defined-benefit pension, replacing that with a retirement savings plan, and to dramatically curtail wage growth for new hires.
In his letter, dated Dec. 4, Buffenbarger said that after the vote, “to date, there has been no further contact between The Boeing Company and the IAM. I can only assume the matter is now closed.”
Also Tuesday, Washington’s congressional delegation sent a letter to Boeing, urging it to build the 777X in the state, citing “miles wide and miles deep” support for aerospace manufacturing.
“Our state’s history of aviation excellence, our experienced workforce, our delegation’s track record of supporting the aerospace industry in the state, and our leaders’ unwavering commitment to supporting growth in aviation make Washington the right place to bring the production of the 777X and its composite wing,” the two senators and 10 representatives wrote.
A handful of Machinists marched Tuesday through Everett to call on union and company leaders to resume talks. March organizer and 767 mechanic Brody Bonnallie said he was disappointed the effort attracted only eight people, but not discouraged.
“We have to do what we can to get the contract.”
Aaron Powell, a 767 worker in Everett who happened to be near the union hall before the marchers arrived, said he thought the march was pointless.
“Boeing wants to deliver the 777X in 2020,” he said. “They are only going to be able to do that if they build it here.”
Washington has already passed legislation offering Boeing $8.7 billion in tax breaks over 16 years provided it builds all of the 777X in the state.
Meanwhile, other states submitted their bids Tuesday, most not revealing the incentives they have offered.
States around the country saw the site competition as an unprecedented opportunity to secure an advanced-manufacturing facility. Boeing’s guidelines for formal bids projected that the 777X would bring about 8,500 high-paying jobs.
In addition to Washington, California, Missouri, Alabama and Utah all submitted bids for putting the 777X at existing Boeing sites, respectively in Long Beach, St. Louis, Huntsville and Salt Lake City.
Alder confirmed that some proposals had already come in and said the company “will begin looking over them in the coming days.”
“Our goal remains to make a final decision early next year,” Alder added.