SEATTLE — The national union chief who has forced a vote on a pension-freezing Boeing contract proposal once called those retirement plans sacred and derided alternatives as risky.
In statements during the past few years, Tom Buffenbarger has advised union members about the importance of protecting defined-benefit pensions. He also warned that the union shouldn't "fall prey to the trap that's been set elsewhere by other companies and other industries where we don't have pensions for new hires."
Boeing workers, predominantly in the Puget Sound area, are set to vote Friday on a proposal that would freeze existing pensions and deny fixed pensions to new employees.
Since machinists rejected an initial contract offer in November, a total of 22 states have submitted bids to secure work on Boeing's new 777X aircraft. Boeing is vowing to produce the new 777X airplane in the region if the contract is approved.
Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, told members in a 2010 video message that he couldn't see the union allowing Boeing to put such a divide between generations of workers.
"Our union, the IAM, holds a pension plan as a sacred, sacred benefit," Buffenbarger said. "We do not give it up without a fight. We do not sacrifice the unborn on the altar of corporate profits."
Despite his message, union workers in St. Louis voted that year to move away from fixed pension plans.
In the Puget Sound area, Buffenbarger has forced the upcoming contract vote despite the objection of local union leaders who believe the contract involves too many concessions, particularly because of its shift away from pensions at a time when Chicago-based Boeing is profitable.
In response to an interview request by The Associated Press, Buffenbarger issued a written statement that Boeing's latest proposal on pensions cannot be viewed in isolation.
The company has offered to build the 777X in the Puget Sound if the contract proposal is accepted and reaffirmed that work on the 737MAX would remain. Buffenbarger said those offers would mean tens of thousands of jobs for the area and decades of prosperity for union members and their families.
"The loss of this work would have a far greater impact on members' retirement security than the changes Boeing has proposed to the current defined benefit plan," Buffenbarger said in his statement. "Our primary responsibility as a union is to protect our members' jobs and to give them a say in the wages, benefits and survival of those jobs."
In a letter sent Tuesday to union workers getting ready to vote, Alan May, Boeing Commercial Airplanes human resources vice president, said approval "will secure jobs in the Puget Sound region for the next decade and beyond.
"With ratification, the company agrees to fabricate and assemble the 777X wing, and build the 777X — including fuselage build, final assembly and major components such as fabrication, interiors and wires — in the Puget Sound area," May wrote.
The wing work "will help us establish in this region a skill base for producing composite wings," he said, adding, "This work will be performed by the mechanics who currently build aluminum wings here in Puget Sound."
Carbon-fiber composites are lighter and stronger than the aluminum used in traditional planes.
Jay Cronk, who is challenging Buffenbarger for the presidency of the union, said Buffenbarger has turned 180 degrees from his past support of pensions. Cronk said union training courses have always taught workers the importance of pension plans to ensure retirement stability.
"He has always taken that position up until now," Cronk said.
Cronk believes Buffenbarger is looking for a long-term contract to secure a steady stream of revenue for the union that wouldn't be disrupted by a possible strike in the coming years.
Rick Sloan, a spokesman for IAM's national leadership, said it isn't about revenue for Buffenbarger. The union is concerned about jobs and the future of work in the Puget Sound, Sloan said.
Buffenbarger hasn't officially taken a position on whether Puget Sound workers should approve the proposed contract but has touted the benefits of the deal.
Fixed pensions were once the most common type of retirement benefit, guaranteeing workers a specific monthly payment for the rest of their lives, regardless of the volatility of the stock market. Fewer than 9 percent of private sector employers still offer such pensions, while 88 percent of employers opt instead to sponsor 401(k) retirement plans.
Six political leaders urged machinists on Monday to accept the proposed contract from Boeing — even though the officials have the same type of retirement package. One is already drawing a pension and five are expected to upon retirement.
Union workers will be voting in person Friday at five locations in the Puget Sound area, the Daily Herald of Everett reported. Since the vote comes in the midst of Boeing's annual holiday plant shutdown and many potential voters are out of town, local union officials have arranged for electronic voting as well.