Late in the spring, IAM leaders asked Boeing directly about its plans for the 777X. "They said 'yes, we are planning to launch a replacement for the 777,'" Buffenbarger said. "The next question from us was: 'Are you going to build that in Seattle?' And they said: 'We don't have any plans to build in Seattle; we are looking at other locations to site this. We are looking at whoever is interested.' 

"So the union asked for the opportunity to pitch Seattle, and the company agreed to sit down and talk," he said.

During the summer, Buffenbarger said, IAM leaders researched plant costs and, to the extent possible, other potential sites. Contract talks began in late October, with the IAM team led by Rich Michalski, who had been instrumental in talks that placed 737MAX work in Seattle. Although Michalski is retired, "He is our most experienced guy and he is a dedicated trade unionist," Buffenbarger said. "He did us a favor."

The talks, Buffenbarger stressed, weren't secret. Leaders of Local 751, including President Tom Wroblewski, were full participants. In November, Boeing came up with its final offer. "There was give and take in negotiations; it was the best we could get," Buffenbarger said. The defined benefit pension plan would have ended, but Boeing's 401K contribution would have started at an unusually high 10%, then declined to 4% after four years.

"At the end of the day, it was good money," Buffenbarger said. "It wasn't a takeaway. But membership turned it down. I figured that's it, my job was done." But then Boeing called the IAM back to the table and made improvements, which Buffenbarger values at $1 billion. "In my world, $1 billion is a big improvement," he said.

Boeing spokesman Doug Alder didn't comment specifically on the course of the talks, but said: "There was indeed a lot of give and take during the negotiations. The most important thing is that we're now at a point where employees are voting." IAM spokesman Frank Larkin said it's part of the IAM's mission to let workers vote. "For 125 years, it's been the consummate meaning of being a union member, to vote on the terms you work under," he said.

Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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