Boeing Machinist Strike Keeps Delta Fleet Grounded

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A strike by Boeing machinists in three states is compounding technical problems and other issues that have effectively grounded the company’s Delta rocket fleet, delaying launches of satellites for environmental monitoring and intelligence gathering.

Another Delta launch, that of a missile warning satellite, also is delayed but for reasons unrelated to the strike, according to Robert Villanueva, a spokesman for Boeing Expendable Launch Systems of Huntington Beach, Calif.

The roughly 1,500 striking machinists, who work at seven Boeing facilities in California, Alabama and Florida, are involved primarily in Delta rocket production and launch support. But the strike also is affecting Boeing work on missile defense programs and the international space station, according to Dan Beck, a company spokesman.

Gary Quick, lead negotiator for the International Association of Machinists in Huntington Beach, said members walked out Nov. 2 over a Boeing proposal to abolish retiree health benefits for employees hired after July 2006. The machinists also are frustrated that Boeing is raising the cost of their health insurance at a time when the company’s profits are up significantly , he said.

Boeing’s revenues rose from $50.2 billion in 2003 to $52.5 billion in 2004, according to a news release posted on the company’s website. John Dern, a spokesman at Boeing’s Chicago headquarters, acknowledged that the company’s recent performance has been strong, and said that the company’s offer to the union was designed to maintain its level of performance while “delivering a strong package to our employees.”

Denying retiree health benefits to new employees could create tension and divisions among the machinists, Quick said. Proposing this plan at a time when Boeing’s recently hired chief executive, W. James McNerney, was given a $23 million retirement package, is particularly insulting, Quick said.

Beck described Boeing’s offer as “very generous,” but also said it was “reflective of the state of the industry.” Dern said that McNerney’s executive retirement package of $22 million is in keeping with those of other chief executives of large U.S. companies, and said that package carried over the same benefits that were due to McNerney in his previous job as chief executive officer at 3M Co.

No meetings have been scheduled between Boeing and the union to address the issues, Beck said Nov. 4.

The launches being held up by the strike include that of a Delta 2 rocket carrying NASA’s CloudSat and U.S.-French Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation climate monitoring payloads. The launch has been delayed repeatedly since early 2005 and was last scheduled for early October from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

It was delayed again after concerns arose during countdown that the rocket lacked sufficient thermal insulation to protect its aft end from exhaust-plume heat during liftoff, Villanueva said. With the strike looming, NASA elected to put the payloads into protective storage, Villanueva said.

The strike also is a factor delaying the launch of a classified U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite known as NRO-L22. That launch has been delayed several times, most recently when officials decided to remove the rocket from its pad at Vandenberg as a precaution before the Oct. 19 launch of another NRO payload from the facility aboard the last Titan 4 rocket, Villanueva said.

Other factors in the NRO-L22 launch delay include concerns that arose during pre-launch testing about the way that propellant was moving around in the Delta 4’s fuel tank, Villanueva said. That issue is close to being resolved, he said.

Boeing must await the return of the striking machinists to reintegrate the satellites with their rockets, Villanueva said. When that might be is unclear as Boeing has given the union what it considers its “best and final offer,” he said.

Despite the uncertainty as to when the strike will end, Boeing is still hoping to launch a long-delayed weather satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., before the end of the year, Villanueva said.

The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-N had been scheduled to launch in May, but was delayed due to a host of issues including technical glitches on the Delta 4 rocket, a communications subsystem problem on the satellite, and the autumn eclipse season.

Another mission from Cape Canaveral — the launch of the U.S. Air Force’s last Defense Support Program missile warning aboard the first operational mission of the heavy-lift Delta 4 variant — has been moved from this autumn into early 2006 due to issues unrelated to the strike, Villanueva said.

That delay is caused by issues with Air Force’s satellite, said Villanueva, who deferred to the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, which manages the program, for comment on the matter.

However, Sally Koris, a spokeswoman for Defense Support Program prime contractor Northrop Grumman, said the satellite is ready to fly.