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Boeing machinists OK contract tied to 777X

Saturday - 1/4/2014, 4:43pm  ET

Boeing machinists walk past statues commemorating striking workers as they prepare to vote at their union hall Friday, Jan. 3, 2014, in Everett, Wash. The vote will determine Friday whether Boeing machinists will accept a contract that would concede some pension and health care benefits in order to secure assembly of the company's new 777X airplane in Washington state. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

MANUEL VALDES
Associated Press

SEATTLE (AP) -- The stakes were high and the vote was close as Boeing production workers agreed to concede some benefits in order to secure assembly of the new 777X airplane for the Puget Sound region.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Boeing hailed Friday's vote, which proponents said solidifies the aerospace giant's presence in the Seattle area.

"Tonight, Washington state secured its future as the aerospace capital of the world," Inslee declared.

Under the terms of the eight-year contract extension, Boeing said the 777X and its composite wing will be built in the Puget Sound area by Boeing employees represented by the Machinists union.

"Thanks to this vote by our employees, the future of Boeing in the Puget Sound region has never looked brighter," Boeing Commercial Airplanes President and CEO Ray Conner said. "We're proud to say that together, we'll build the world's next great airplane -- the 777X and its new wing -- right here. This will put our workforce on the cutting edge of composite technology, while sustaining thousands of local jobs for years to come."

Local officials of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers had urged their 30,000 members to oppose the deal, arguing that the proposal surrendered too much at a time of company profitability. They had opposed taking a vote at all but were overruled by national leaders in the Machinists union.

The announcement that the contract had passed with a 51 percent yes vote was somber.

"Our members have spoken and having said that, this is the course we'll take," Jim Bearden, administrative assistant for Machinists District 751, said in announcing the results. "No member liked this vote or the position we were put in by the company, nor was it an easy vote for anyone to cast."

Opponents of the contract opposed the idea of freezing the Machinists' pensions and moving workers to a defined-contribution savings plan.

The issue fractured the union and drew unusual pleas from politicians who said the deal was necessary to support the area's economic future. Boeing has been exploring the prospect of building the 777X elsewhere, a move that could trigger a steady exodus of aerospace jobs from the place where Boeing was founded.

"We missed it by 1 percent because people were confused and worried about their jobs," said Rick Herrmann, who has been working at Boeing for 46 years.

Hazel Powers and Dena Bartman lingered at the Seattle union hall after the results were announced, their eyes swollen from crying. Powers described a solemn mood after the announcement.

"Shocked. Disbelief," she said.

"I'm still just numb," Bartman said.

Powers has worked for Boeing for almost 35 years, while Bartman has been there for 25 years. Her 25-year-old daughter has worked at the aerospace giant for seven years.

"I think people that voted for it were scared," Powers said. "The pressure from the politicians and the community - people are scared about not having good-paying Boeing jobs."

Bob Dennis, an inspector at Boeing for six years, said earlier in the day he was voting for the contract because it represented the best chance to keep the 777X jobs in Washington state.

"I don't think Boeing had to come back to the table. We forced them that way. But at the same time, I think this is our last opportunity to keep those jobs in the state," he said.

"The tough vote taken by the Machinists today means the 777X will be built in the only place it should be, by the only people prepared to deliver," said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

"I know well this decision wasn't easy for any of the Machinists or their families, and I know that many of those men and women decided Boeing's latest offer was still unacceptable," Murray added. "Their concerns about income and retirement security for current and future generations of aerospace workers - and all American workers - are legitimate."

Bearden, speaking in place of District 751 President Tom Wroblewski, who has been ill, said Boeing production workers "faced tremendous pressure from every source imaginable." He took a dig at "the politicians and the media, and others, who truly didn't have a right to get into our businesses, were aligned against us and did their best to influence our folks' votes."

Machinists International President Tom Buffenbarger, who forced the issue to a vote over the objections of local union leaders, said in a statement that "the impact of this agreement extends far beyond IAM members who voted today.

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