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Boeing Engineers Return To Work

Going back to work together — the same way they walked off their jobs 40 days ago — Boeing Co. white-collar workers Monday morning celebrated the determination and solidarity that led to their new contract.

"Thanks to you, no adversary of workers will ever underestimate the staying power of women and men who just happen to work with their brains instead of their backs," AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka said at a brief rally here before the engineers and technicians filed back to their jobs at the company's commercial jet plant here.

Members of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace returned to their jobs at Seattle and Portland area Boeing plants after voting Sunday to end a 40-day strike — one of the largest ever by U.S. white-collar workers.

"We're walking back in a changed people. We're walking back to a changed company," said SPEEA Executive Director Charles Bofferding.

"Your commitment to solidarity is a model for this country," said Ron Judd, secretary-treasurer of the King County Labor Council.

"I'm happy and relieved," said engineer Jim Carder, 39, of Renton, though he added he was disappointed the company didn't come through with more money.

"All along this has been about how we rate with the market," Carder said, adding, "I think there's going to be a pretty significant brain drain" as a result of the contract agreement that was reached Friday.

Engineer Ken Zaballos, 39, said the strike cost him $7,500 "and I think it's worth every penny."

Boeing spokesman Peter Conte said the company did not have an immediate count of how many SPEEA-represented employees were back at work Monday.

"I think the vast majority are returning today, though," he said.

Neither side was predicting a sweet reunion — or an easy time making up lost production.

"We realize there are many challenges that face us all in the days to come, not the least of which are reintegrating our team and working to recover from the impacts of the strike," Boeing Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Phil Condit said Sunday.

"This has been an emotional time for all involved. We are confident that, with time, we will be able to heal from this unfortunate situation as we strive to continue listening to each other and understanding our mutual interests," he said in a news release.

Some 9,660 of the 13,440 eligible, dues-paying Seattle-area SPEEA members voted on the three-year pact, with both engineers and technical workers approving it by more than 70 percent, the union said.

The contract guarantees wage increases of at least 3 percent each year, in addition to production-linked bonuses of up to $2,500.

Boeing missed at least 15 airplane deliveries, and work on some government cotracts suffered during the walkout of about 15,000 to 17,000 workers that began Feb. 9.

"I fully expect it could be a couple of months before we get back up to speed," said Joel Funter, 36, a technical worker at Boeing Field, south of Seattle.

Funter said some workers were bitter over the long negotiations and bonuses smaller than those received by members of the larger Machinists union at Boeing.

The settlement sets the stage for contract talks covering 1,300 SPEEA-represented Boeing engineers in Wichita, Kan., to resume this week. Earlier this month the Wichita negotiators reached a "me-too" agreement that essentially guaranteed those workers at least the same wages and benefits as their co-workers in Seattle.

In its annual report to federal regulators, filed last week, Boeing said the strike would hurt financial performance in the first quarter, which ends March 31, and could affect the second quarter as well.

Union leaders were jubilant at a Sunday evening news conference after the final tally of votes.

"All I can say is, this is history. And if this is what it feels like to make history, let's just keep doing it," Bofferding said.

The strike was one of the largest ever by white-collar workers in the United States.

"In the past, white collar workers have said unions are good, but they're not for us," Trumka said Sunday. He said the concessions won by SPEEA prove that unions benefit all workers, "white collar, blue collar, or no collar."

The company dropped its demand that workers pay part of their health insurance premiums. Health coverage would be extended to domestic partners.

Rather than the lump-sum 10 percent payment won by the International Association of Machinists, the proposal offers cash bonuses of $1,000 after 30 days, $500 following delivery of 225 planes this year and $1,000 after delivery of 491 planes no later than March 1, 2001.

If the targets are missed through no fault of SPEEA-covered workers, the bonuses would be paid anyway. Previous contract offers did not contain bonuses.

The union counted 17,000 workers off the job, mostly in the Puget Sound area, although recent Boeing estimates put the number at 15,000. SPEEA represents 22,352 workers, of whom 20,224 are in the Puget Sound bargaining unit that voted Sunday. Units in Kansas and elsewhere negotiate separately.

Due in part to the strike, Boeing's share price fell from a high of $47.62½ on Jan. 17 to $32.37½, just shy of the 52-week low of $32, on March 10. On Friday, shares gained $2.38 to close at $38 on the New York Stock Exchange.