Boeing machinists wait before walking

Boeing machinists vote at their union hall on whether to acccept the latest proposal from the company.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL: Shares of Boeing tumbled 4.5 percent today, part of a much larger slide on Wall Street. The company has what you might call an "almost strike' on its hands.

Tens of thousands of union machinists could hit picket lines by Friday night, if a two-day, cooling-off period doesn't stick. And that would certainly mean lower productivity for a company that makes one of the most expensive single items in this economy -- passenger airplanes.

Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman has been following the story. Hi, Mitchell.

MITCHELL HARTMAN: Hi, Kai.

RYSSDAL: So what's on the table here that these two sides have decided not to talk about?

HARTMAN: Well, the negotiators are back behind closed doors for 48 hours. Theoretically, they're listening to each other. But, you know, people who were listening to the union rally last night after 87 percent of the machinists voted to strike, and then listening to the company's statements as I did via teleconference -- saying they'd listen but not really indicating that they were going to bring any new proposals to the table -- it sounds like this is just a clock ticking toward 12:01 Saturday morning when most people expect that the machinists will be on the picket lines.

RYSSDAL: This is not a time when unions in America have a whole lot of bargaining power, Mitchell. What is it that sets Boeing's machinists apart to think they can do this?

HARTMAN: Well, you know, it's true that in the general economy workers mostly can't handle a strike, especially a long strike right now. But Boeing and the machinists are really a breed apart, in this economy. You know, first of all, the machinists are different. They're well paid. Their numbers have been rising in the Boeing factories -- 7,000 new union members since the last contract are on the production lines -- and Boeing is awash in orders. They have eight years of backlogged orders for planes, something like 4,000 planes on order. They've got to make all those planes. The machinists know it. They're already working overtime. And they think Boeing can't afford to take a long strike.

RYSSDAL: But if airlines are going out of business all over the place as they are, and having trouble paying for gas at $110 a barrel for oil, aren't plane makers' -- the company's customers -- in trouble, too?

HARTMAN: You know, they would be if Boeing was mostly selling to American Airlines and Delta and United. But they're not. Ninety percent of the planes they've got on order are not for domestic carriers that, you know, really are suffering. They're for All Nippon, they're for Singapore Airlines, Qantas, airlines in eastern Europe and Russia. Those countries are beefing up their airline businesses. They've got more traffic. They're not hurting as much as the U.S. And down the line they need to replace planes. They need to put more fuel-efficient planes in the air. And Boeing's business looks really good down the line.

RYSSDAL: Before I let you go, Mitchell, remind us when the strike deadline is.

HARTMAN: 12:01 Saturday morning.

RYSSDAL: Mitchell Hartman at the Entrepreneurship Desk in Portland, Ore. Thanks, Mitchell.

HARTMAN: Thanks, Kai. It was a pleasure.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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