ST. LOUIS ( TheStreet) - It puzzles the International Association of Machinists that Boeing ( BA) so firmly desires to keep future workers from a defined benefit pension plan. It is possible the conflict will lead to a strike on Monday by 2,500 Boeing workers who make F-15 and F-18 jets. These members of IAM Local 837 will take a second strike vote on Sunday. In an earlier vote, they backed a strike by a 1619-459 margin, and Boeing has not altered its intent to establish a defined contribution 401K plan for new hires. The proposed pension plan change is so important that both sides seem willing to risk a strike over it.
"It's something our members cannot understand," said Mark Blondin, the IAM's national aerospace coordinator. "(Some) other companies are happy to offer defined benefit pension plans." The Boeing workers in St. Louis, many of them older, belong to a pension plan that was established by McDonnell Douglas and taken over by Boeing. As another option, the IAM offers its own plan, which has assets of $7.3 billion and 104,000 active members. Blondin said its costs are lower than the cost of the Boeing plan. "A lot of companies jump on it," he said, because they are relieved of pension funding responsibilities that many companies view as inordinately rigid. In 2009, Boeing introduced a 401K plan for all new-hire, non-union employees. Boeing spokesman Paul Guse said the plan is in place at other Boeing sites, including some with unionized employees. "Companies including Boeing are shifting to these kind of plans to ensure we provide the benefits package preferred by our future workforce and to align with peer company practices in offering plans that are portable and give control for financial decisions to employees," Guse said. However, in recent deals with the IAM, Boeing suppliers Spirit AeroSystems ( SPR) and Triumph Group ( TGI) both preserved defined benefit pension plans.
In 2005, about 16,000 United ( UAUA) agents, ramp workers and stock clerks, represented by the IAM, approved a new contract with $700 million in wage and benefit reductions. The contract includes a defined benefit pension plan, which no other United workers have.
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"United was getting ready to abrogate the
old contract," said Robert Roach, IAM general vice president, in a 2006 interview. "They were afraid of what the other unions would say if we had a pension plan and the others did not. But we told them we must have the pension plan or we would shut the airline down." Defined benefit pension plans can be giant headaches, however. On June 16, after FedEx's ( FDX) disappointing guidance led the stock market down in early trading, CFO Alan Graf said the numbers primarily reflected higher pension fund payments necessitated by low interest rates. On the company's earnings call, Graf said FedEx faces a pension cost increase of $260 million due to the decline in the discount rate. "This is the lowest rate we'll ever see," Graf said. "That was a big factor in why our range may be a little bit lower than where First Call is." He said he is lobbying for change in the requirement that pension fund levels be maintained at "mark to market" levels based on the discount rate. In 2006, when Delta ( DAL) was in bankruptcy, it needed an act of Congress in order to stretch out its pension payments over a longer time frame to enable its restructuring. But this required the plan to be frozen, because the lower payments were insufficient to fund it at acceptable levels. -- Written by Ted Reed in St. Louis .
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