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Union infighting may complicate Washington effort to win 777 work

Jonathan Kaminsky
Monday, 18 Nov 2013 | 7:00 AM ET

OLYMPIA, Nov 18 (Reuters) - The leader of Boeing Co's main union in Washington 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 Commercial Airplanes Chief Executive Ray Conner told reporters in Dubai on Saturday that Boeing hasn't changed the timing of the aircraft's arrival, and 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.

"We have got to put brick and mortar in place to do the wing and maybe some other things, so we have to make some decisions about where we are going to be long term, so we can establish those type of facilities in place," Conner said in Dubai.

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 local IAM units passed votes of no confidence in Wroblewski and called for his resignation, said a union official with knowledge of the votes. Union spokespeople did not immediately return calls requesting commment.

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

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.

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