Boeing locks out its firefighters amid union fight for pay


(WASHINGTON) — Boeing officially locked out its unionized firefighters in Washington after the firefighter’s union failed to come to an agreement with the company after two-and-a-half months of negotiations, primarily over pay.

This is the first time in over four decades that a group of firefighters have been on a lock out in the U.S.

“Despite extensive discussions through an impartial federal mediator, we did not reach an agreement with the union,” Boeing said in a statement Saturday. “We are disappointed the union chose not to even bring our offer to its members for one final vote.”

Boeing added, “We have now locked out members of the bargaining unit and fully implemented our contingency plan with highly qualified firefighters performing the work of IAFF members. Our plan ensures safe operations at our Puget Sound area sites with no impact to business operations.”

The International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) Local I-66 Union consists of 125 members in Washington state who work for Boeing and are tasked with responding to any incidents that happen on the Boeing campus.

“We’re one of the only fire departments left in the country that only gets paid for 20 hours, but we’re on shift for 24 hours,” Boeing Firefighters Local I-66 President Casey Yeager told ABC News, saying Boeing firefighters receive a $50 bonus to stay for four extra hours.

The union said Boeing’s lockdown is “intended to punish, intimidate, and coerce its firefighters into accepting a contract that undervalues their work.”

“When is Boeing going to make safety a priority? When is Boeing finally going to listen?” said Casey Yeager, president of Local I-66, in a statement Saturday.

At Boeing, it currently takes 14 years to get to the top level of pay under current negotiations, the union says. Boeing wants to change that number to 19 years, according to the union. The union claims other Boeing employees reach top pay within five years.

Currently, the starting salary for Boeing firefighters is roughly $25 an hour, or $52,000 a year, which the union claims is lower than other municipal and industrial firefighters pay in Washington State. The union told ABC News that Boeing offered terms that were 20% lower than other local fire departments, including municipal and private industrial departments.

“We won’t be intimidated by the bosses at Boeing. We’ll stand up and fight,” Edward Kelly, IAFF general president, said Saturday.

The firefighters’ union said the goal in the event of a fire at Boeing is to have water or foam on any fire within four minutes, which the union says helps Boeing save billions of dollars on insurance.

In addition to emergency needs, Boeing first responders are on the ground for all airplane refueling, takeoffs, landings and medical emergencies.

They educate and train Boeing employees on safety measures on its Washington State campus, which includes anything from how to properly use fire extinguishers to how the sprinkler systems work on campus. Some of the firefighters at the Boeing site have been specially trained by NASA, to be able to retrieve the astronauts from the Boeing Starliner, a spacecraft that is designed to transport crews to the International Space Station (ISS).

“I think Boeing tends to forget that we don’t have fires for a reason, because of what we do,” Yeager added, accounting for their safety record.

Yeager says that the firefighters “can’t staff accordingly, because our pay structure is so low right now. Instead, they’ve knocked our staffing levels down to what we deem is unreasonable.”

Although they are fighting for better wages, Yeager says they are also fighting for safety and staffing levels while also fighting for better mental health resources.

The mental health services have temporarily been suspended while contract negotiations continue, which Yeager said impacted several of his union members who he said suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“They’re not thinking about our people, they’re not thinking about our families. They’re thinking about the almighty dollar and how much they can save,” Yeager said, referring to the company.

“It’s just not safe. We can’t mirror the workload that we’re doing right now in a safe manner,” the union president added.

Yeager told ABC News that some of his members are on public assistance and are often working other jobs to try and make ends meet.

Kjel Swedelius is one of the members who qualifies for public assistance due to his 7-year-old son who is non-verbal autistic and permanently disabled.

“Working here, I don’t make enough money. So he [his son] does qualify for state assistance. I can’t really have a second job to help support home life because I have to go home and help take care of him because it’s 24/7 care,” Swedelius told ABC News.

Swedelius said he loves his job but has considered selling his home and downsizing to make ends meet.

In a press release from Boeing, the company said the union proposed a pay progression that will allow firefighters to reach the top of pay progression within five years and it’s inconsistent with other corporate and industrial fire departments. They also said the average take-home pay for the firefighter bargaining unit was $91,000. They say their “contract offer would significantly increase that figure.”

Boeing told ABC News, “We’ve presented the union with two highly competitive contract offers that featured pay increases, outstanding healthcare coverage and one of the best 401(k) plans in the nation.”

The company added that the new “compensation structure that increases pay for firefighters on a 24-hour shift schedule, but does not change any working requirements, would result in an average increase of approximately $21,000 per year.”

“A lot of us got in the field knew we weren’t gonna get rich but at the same time, we want to be paid evenly with our current area that we’re serving,” Yeager said.

A sentiment Swedulius echoed, “I really enjoy what I do here. And I really like the people I work with. So I’d love to be able to stay here. But if we obviously don’t get a good contract, it won’t be doable.”

Boeing has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board.

Although the union has the right to strike at any moment, Boeing said it’s been “forced to spend considerable time and resources to ensure the continuity of operations.”

Kelly said the national union is supporting the local union in its ongoing battle for pay.

-ABC News’ Nadine El-Bawab contributed to this report.

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