AP Business WriterSEATTLE (AP) -- Members of The Boeing Co.'s largest union on Tuesday took the first step toward a possible strike if negotiations for a new contract fail this summer.
Members voting in three districts of the Machinists union -- in the Puget Sound area, Wichita, Kan., and Portland, Ore. -- approved a strike authorization by a 98 percent margin, union officials said. The union, which represents which represents 26,100 production workers at Boeing plants in the three states, did not give vote totals or say how many members cast ballots.
The vote, to give negotiators authority to seek a strike, is largely a show of strength as the union continues talks with Boeing to replace a contract that expires at midnight Sept 1. A strike could only occur if members reject what Boeing describes as a "best and final" offer expected in late August, and vote to strike by a two-thirds majority.
Tuesday's vote also ensures that members can collect strike benefits from the international union.
"Your individual presence and our collective vote today is going to send a strong and emphatic message" to Boeing executives, who "just kind of hate it when we do it this way," said Mark Blondin, president of Seattle-based Machinists District 751, the largest of the three districts that voted.
Boeing was expecting the results, said spokesman Chuck Cadena.
"A 'yes' vote is not an indication of the status of negotiations or a prediction of the outcome," he said. "The Boeing team is approaching these negotiations as a collaborative effort and with the commitment to do everything possible and within reason to have a successful outcome."
The union's top issues are job security, higher pension benefits and better health care.
Boeing, the world's largest aerospace company, faces continuing economic turmoil in the airline industry from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and an unrelenting push by competitor Airbus for more market share.
Boeing also triggered fears over its long-term plans in the Seattle area when it moved its headquarters last year from here to Chicago.
Meanwhile, the union's ranks have thinned due to layoffs numbering in the tens of thousands. Membership in District 751 has fallen about 25 percent since Sept. 11 and by almost half from the 1999 contract negotiations to fewer than 20,000 members.
Machinists also represent 5,000 workers in Kansas and 1,100 in Portland. Boeing's engineers and technicians, and production workers at major plants in St. Louis, Philadelphia and the Los Angeles area are covered by different contracts.
Boeing and the union opened contract negotiations June 25 in Wichita. Round-the-clock negotiations begin Aug. 15.
Boeing is expected to present its final offer to the union Aug. 27 with the union membership to vote two days later.
Machinists struck Boeing for 48 days in 1989 and 69 days in 1995.
------On the Net:
Machinists union District 751: http://www.iam751.org