SEATTLE — The 777X saga came to an end Friday evening as machinists in one of Boeing’s largest unions approved a contract that guarantees the aircraft and its wings will be built in Washington State. The final tally was 51% for to 49% in favor, despite a near militant ‘vote no’ campaign orchestrated by local union leadership and a landslide rejection of the company’s initial offer. The decision to approve the contract ends months of uncertainty as to where the jet would be built.
Union members who had gathered inside the IAM District Lodge 751 in South Seattle to hear the news reported disbelief as the verdict was read by union president Tom Wroblewski late in the evening. Members left the hall quickly and quietly following the outcome, leaving all but a handful behind within minutes. Those who remained consoled one another by sharing hugs, tears, disappointment, and anger.
“All the benefits…taken away by 51%,” an IAM member said tearfully following the vote.
IAM 751 Local placed a statement on their website from Wroblewski, saying that “Our members have spoken and this is the course we’ll take.” Local leadership had waged a significant ‘vote no’ campaign since the moment IAM International forced a vote on the contract a few weeks back. Unlike the previous vote, in which local IAM leaders did not take a stance, leaders came out strongly against the vote and took regular opportunities to recommend members turn it down. Several anti-contract rallies were held, most recently Thursday evening, all of which received modest turn out. In comparison, a handful of pro-contract rallies saw sparse attendance.
While the mood here at the union hall was decidedly negative, Boeing brass was predictably more positive. In a statement released some forty minutes following the vote, 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 [in Seattle]. Thanks to this vote by our employees, the future of Boeing in the Puget Sound region has never looked brighter.”
Washington State Governor Jay Inslee was likewise upbeat, releasing a statement late in the evening saying “With the work the Legislature did in November and tonight’s vote, Washington state has shown it is the only place to build this next generation jetliner.” He went on to commend members for taking a “hard vote that demands the respect of all Washingtonians who will benefit from having Boeing build the 777X here.”
As for the voters that made the difficult decision to accept the deal, none of them were to be found in the union halls. They were instead holed up at home, in local watering holes, or simply at work.
The modest changes to the contract managed to sway a majority of members, who were willing to swallow the unchanged pension freeze and benefit cut portions for a guarantee to keep the program in the Seattle region. Boeing sufficiently sweetened the deal by upping a ratification bonus from $10,000 to $15,000 per member, and by keeping the current wage progression in tact. State and local officials had ramped up efforts through the week to convince the machinists to take the deal and run. IAM International, meanwhile, stopped short of encouraging a yes vote, but noted that the latest offer represented $1 billion in concessions to the union.
Earlier in the day, voters lined up for hours outside the union hall near Everett, WA to cast their ballots. Most voters that spoke with Airchive throughout the day reported intentions to vote ‘no’, a claim that later went unsubstantiated as the votes rolled in.
While Puget Sound received the go-ahead for take off, the hopes of several dozen locations elsewhere across the nation have instead been left idling on the runway. Following the initial failed vote in November, Boeing requested proposals from alternative locations across the US. Despite deploying a ridiculous wish-list with items ranging from a deep-water port to near total tax exemption, free land to developing the property at little to no cost to the company, 54 sites across 22 states put in a bid to win the 777X program and the thousands of jobs it will bring with it. Boeing was said to have boiled down those 54 options to a short-list that had been ready to go should the machinists have voted down the contract.
With the Everett plant having secured the contract, however, that short-list will no longer be necessary. Locations in Long Beach, California; Huntsville, Alabama; St. Louis, Missouri; and Salt Lake City, Utah were believed to be among that list.
The jet is expected to produce or maintain tens of thousands of jobs well into the middle of century for the region. With production still four years away the airplane has already gathered 280 orders, most of which came during the epic spending spree at the Dubai Airshow in November.
That today’s vote happened at all was nothing short of a surprise twist in itself. Both sides had been facing political pressure to return to the bargaining table following the failed first vote. Local union leadership offered to come back to the table first, perhaps realizing Boeing appeared to call their bluff. Boeing initially dismissed the idea and pressed ahead with requesting bids from other locations.
However, Ray Conner, President and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, and IAM District 751 President Tom Wroblewski had been engaged in what Boeing described as “talks” since Monday. The talks appear to have quickly escalated into negotiations with news that the union had offered a proposal to Boeing. Hope for a breakthrough collapsed shortly thereafter, however, on the news that Boeing had offered a counter-proposal that union leadership rejected out of hand.
Some members of the union questioned Wroblewski’s wisdom in denying rank and file a vote on the new contract despite its shortcomings. The increasingly vocal group began demanding a vote.
The blowback wound up initiating a finger-pointing between Wroblewski and Boeing brass. Wroblewski contended that Boeing pinned a vote on his approval and support of the contract, which he did not lend, thus leading the company to withdraw the offer. Boeing disagreed, stating that the company had not withdrawn the offer “because it was rejected [by Wroblewski]”.
While language in a Boeing email to employees lent credibility to Wroblewski’s story, the finger pointing did little good. IAM international announced that they would schedule a vote on the new contract, scheduled for January 3rd.
Local 751 leadership, along with many members, were livid over the decision. Splitting with International, local leaders continued to adamantly oppose the contract and had strongly recommended membership to vote ‘no’.
Unfortunately for leadership, a majority of the union’s 32,000 members disagreed, opting for a guaranteed job over the prospect of losing everything down the road.