Just when Boeing really needs its engineers, they're voting on whether to strike.
It's bad timing for Boeing. The aircraft maker is working around the clock to solve battery problems that have grounded its 787s around the world, and unionized engineers are a big part of that effort.
The vote begins Tuesday and runs through Feb. 19. The union has recommended that its members reject Boeing's contract proposal, hoping the company offers something better, or they may strike.
The strike threat is growing just as Boeing is dealing with a host of other problems. It must mollify airlines frustrated about buying a $200 million plane they can't fly, and it needs to fix the battery problem. U.S. regulators have launched an open-ended review of the 787's design and construction. And Boeing needs to speed production of the 787 and other planes.
Last month a battery on a parked 787 caught fire in Boston. Then on Jan. 16, another 787 had to make an emergency landing in Japan after another battery problem. All 50 787s that Boeing had delivered so far are grounded until the issue is solved.
Boeing has said that fixing the 787 is taking its full effort.
The effort includes hundreds of members of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, the union's executive director, Ray Goforth, said in an interview on Wednesday. The union represents some 23,000 workers at Boeing.
Jim McNerney, Boeing Co.'s chairman and CEO, was asked on Wednesday whether a SPEEA strike would impact the investigation into the battery issues.
"I think we're going to have enough experts available to keep looking at this issue if it goes that far," McNerney said after the company reported financial results.
Goforth said the grounding ""shifted a lot of leverage to us." But workers wanted to keep things simple and not take advantage of Boeing's situation, he said, so they dropped the improvements they had been seeking in favor of extending the contract.
Boeing's counter-offer — the one the union will vote on — mostly does that. However, Boeing wants to drop traditional pensions for future hires, replacing them with 401k plans. Boeing also declined to make two changes that SPEEA wanted that it said would help preserve current retirement benefits. The union sees those as major give-backs that mean the offer should be rejected.