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Union infighting may complicate Washington state effort to win 777 work

A union member displays his vote against the proposed contract during a union vote at the International Association of Machinists District 7
A union member displays his vote against the proposed contract during a union vote at the International Association of Machinists District 7

By Jonathan Kaminsky

OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - The leader of Boeing Co's main union in Washington state faces a revolt that could complicate efforts to bring the new 777 jetliner to the Seattle area, as the airplane maker moves to consider alternative buildings sites for the revamped plane.

Boeing formally launched the new 777, formerly codenamed 777X, on Sunday with 259 orders worth more than $95 billion at list prices - the largest combined order in its history. The jet is due to enter service around 2020.

Boeing Chairman and Chief Executive Jim McNerney told reporters in Dubai on Monday that the company expects to make a decision on where to build its newest jet within 3 months.

"We will be announcing within the next two- to- three months very specifically plans for manufacturing," he said. "We have a number of alternatives and we are in the process of considering them."

The company said it hasn't changed the timing of the aircraft's arrival, and that it is negotiating with other states after the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union rejected a contract offer that Boeing said was necessary for the jet to be built in Washington.

Boeing officials were on planes to other states the day after the union vote. The proposed labor deal, which would have extended the workers' current contract ending in 2016 for eight years, included cuts to pensions and health care benefits, a slower rate of wage increases for new workers and a $10,000 cash bonus per member.

Brokered between Boeing executives and IAM union leaders in about five weeks, the contract extension was voted down by a 2-1 margin on Wednesday, with dozens of workers at the Seattle union hall jeering their leadership as sellouts after the results were announced.

After the vote, several union members said they had lost confidence in IAM District 751 President Tom Wroblewski, who helped negotiate the deal, then called it "a piece of crap" at a union meeting, and then wrote a letter to members calling it "an opportunity we will never see again to secure thousands of good-paying jobs."

In the days after the vote, two of the four local IAM units in the Puget Sound area passed votes of no confidence in Wroblewski and called for his resignation, said a union official with knowledge of the votes.

Union spokesman Bryan Corliss said that Wroblewski was travelling this week on union business and would not be available for an interview.

Corliss said he knew of no plans for Wroblewski to step down, noting that he was reelected to a four-year term in 2012.

IAM President R. Thomas Buffenbarger has said he backs Wroblewski, who has not spoken in public since the vote.

Sara Baumgardner, 23, a Boeing mechanic in Everett, said that while she regrets the mixed messages that Wroblewski sent his membership over the company's proposal, she believes he was caught between IAM leadership in Washington D.C., which supported the deal, and union members in the Seattle area, many of whom viewed its terms as insulting.

"He's like the president of United States," she said. "Everything could go wrong in the background but he's the one who's going to get blamed."

In an interview on Friday, Buffenbarger said Boeing expressed concern in the contract talks about the smooth launch of the rival Airbus A350 jet, which he said was driving the urgency of getting the new 777 program started.

Boeing said on Sunday that the A350 was not a factor in its speed in getting the 777 development started and declined to comment further.

Both Boeing and the union each have said it is up to the other to restart talks.

David Postman, spokesman for Washington state Governor Jay Inslee, said the resumption of talks "may be something that both sides have to do at the same time."

Acknowledging that tensions within the union could complicate those efforts, Postman said it was the governor's role to help facilitate such dialog.

"Obviously, it's important to have somebody who can speak to us, who can effectively represent the union. There is a lot of tension there. It's evident," Postman said.

(Reporting Jontahan Kaminsky; Editing by Alwyn Scott, Peter Henderson, Leslie Gevirtz and Bernard Orr)

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