Boeing threatens to lock out its private firefighters around Seattle in a dispute over pay

Boeing is threatening to shut out its own fire department, which protects its aircraft factories in the Seattle area, and bring in replacements starting Friday evening unless workers accept the company’s latest pay offer.

The company said the two sides were far apart in negotiations. It described the lockout as a precautionary measure as the union could go on strike at any time once the current contract expires at midnight local time.

Each side accuses the other of bad faith negotiating.

The labor dispute comes as Boeing faces mounting losses — more than $24 billion since the start of 2019 — and increased scrutiny over production quality and safety since a door plug blew out of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max in January who flew over Oregon.

On Friday, Boeing dismissed any safety concerns over the dispute with its industrial firefighters. The company said it has made arrangements for “highly qualified firefighters” to replace union workers, and that the lockout will not affect operations at factories where it builds planes.

Boeing has about 125 firefighters in the Seattle area and a facility about 170 miles away in central Washington state. They act as first responders to fires and medical emergencies and can call for help from local fire departments. The union says Boeing can get much lower insurance rates because of their constant presence.

The company says firefighters were paid an average of $91,000 last year.

Casey Yeager, president of Local I-66 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said Boeing is proposing increases of 18% to 20%, which would still leave crews making 20% ​​to 30% less than firefighters in the cities where Boeing plants are located are located . He said the union is seeking a 40 to 50 percent wage increase.

A major sticking point is Boeing’s requirement that firefighters wait 19 years before reaching the top pay grade, an increase from 14 years. The union proposes five years.

“If they keep pushing it, you’ll never” get to the top, said Kjel Swedelius, a Boeing firefighter for more than six years. “Our turnover rate is super, super high.”

Swedelius said he needs financial help to cover the care of his autistic 7-year-old son.

“I really enjoy working at Boeing, but it’s getting harder and harder,” he said. “They don’t want to keep up with inflation.”

In a letter to the union this week, Boeing said the union had rejected two previous proposals and that the company has “financially gone as far as it is willing to go and will not add any more money to its offer.”

The company, headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, said it plans to pay firefighters four hours of overtime in each 24-hour shift, which would increase their pay on average $21,000 a year.

Boeing has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the union of bad faith negotiations during more than two months of negotiations and several meetings with a federal mediator.

“With the possibility of a strike, we have activated our emergency plan, which includes the deployment of highly qualified firefighters,” a company spokesperson said in a statement on Friday. “If a contract is not ratified by 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, we will exclude all members of the bargaining unit.”