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Boeing puts labor plan online

August 28, 2008|From Bloomberg News

Boeing Co., in the last week of talks with its largest union before a three-year labor contract expires, is betting that a direct appeal and early final offer will persuade the machinists not to strike.

Although union leaders would typically present details of a proposal to members, Chicago-based Boeing chose for the first time to put its full initial contract proposal on the Web last week. The company then updated the offer Tuesday and plans to issue a final one by Friday, giving workers extra time to study it before a Sept. 3 vote.

"Boeing is communicating differently this time, and I bet it's driving the union crazy," said Howard Rubel, an analyst at Jefferies & Co. "But in this age of the Internet, why not put it all out there on the website? This gives the rank and file more time to absorb and decide, rather than being given the cram-down at the last moment."

The strategy may backfire by angering employees who focus on the company's early, lower offers and inciting them to walk off the job next week, union leader Thomas Wroblewski said. A strike would shut down Boeing's manufacturing base in Seattle and cost $120 million a day in lost revenue, Rubel said. It may also further delay production of Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner.

"We have a poor history of labor relations with the IAM, so we figured we'd better do something different this time around," Boeing spokesman Tim Healy said. The company started its special negotiations website in May, including a blog written by top company negotiator Doug Kight, and has been putting its offers online within hours of presenting them to union leaders.

The open communication during negotiations is a risky move, said Gary Chaison, a labor-relations professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "The Internet provides a wonderful means of communicating with the workforce. But where employees have selected a representative to deal with management, they might tend to resent a move to go around them."

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