Boeing faces strike by engineers on top of Dreamliner groundings
Boeing, already struggling with the grounding of its 787 Dreamliner, is facing a possible strike by unionised engineers, threatening even more upheaval as the American aircraft maker tries to fix the plane and resume deliveries to customers.
Voting was scheduled to end last night for 23,000 engineers and technical workers considering whether to authorise a walkout in their dispute over retirement benefits. Approval would allow the Seattle-based union to call a strike at any time.
Labour strife may undermine the company's efforts to recover. Union workers are involved in trying to find the source of two battery failures that prompted the grounding of 50 787s on January 16 and solutions to get the planes back in the air.
They are also helping boost jet production to reduce a seven-year order backlog and develop upgrades for three models.
Brad Lawrence, the chief executive of Esterline Technologies, whose company gets 8.9 per cent of its revenue from Boeing, said: "The timing would just be horrible. To have your engineers' union be this disconnected that it would walk out right when your company needs you most, it would just be horrible."
The clash reflects long-standing differences between the engineers who design Boeing planes and the managers at the helm of the company. In a split that played into the Dreamliner development, Alan Mulally, an engineer who headed Boeing's commercial airlines business, was passed over for the top job in 2005 in favour of James McNerney, the chief executive of 3M.
Mulally went on to lead the revival at Ford Motor and was replaced by Scott Carson, Boeing's sales chief. Communication between management and engineers suffered, according to former employees.
Negotiations on the latest contract turned bitter in recent months. Boeing said work would move to less expensive sites outside its Seattle jet-manufacturing and development hub if labour costs kept rising.
The Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace union points to Boeing's US$12.6 billion in profits since 2009 and says engineers deserve to be rewarded, as the company has returned cash to shareholders with buy-backs and a 15 per cent dividend boost.