STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Boeing engineers in the Pacific Northwest are voting on whether to authorize a strike. The labor dispute is playing out against a dramatic backdrop. Here, the engineers are needed, now more than ever, to help fix the batteries on Boeing's flagship 787 Dreamliner.
As Ashley Gross of member station KPLU reports, that's given the engineers something that is rare for unions, these days - leverage.
ASHLEY GROSS, BYLINE: At the engineering union headquarters south of Seattle, about a dozen Boeing employees are gathering to talk strategy.
ORLANDO DE LOS SANTOS: And - all right, we'll start the meeting at 4:30, but you guys go get some grub.
GROSS: Over plates of Indian curry, they talk about the ballots that went out to 21,000 engineers and technicians this week. On the table is a flier that says, "We keep Boeing flying." Except, of course, there's one plane that's not flying - the fuel-efficient Dreamliner. The FAA grounded it last month due to battery problems. Hundreds of union members are working around the clock to find a fix. Union leader Orlando de los Santos says it's a reminder to Boeing to value its technical workers.
SANTOS: You need us engineers. We are still the center of the universe, like it or not. Treat the engineers with respect.
GROSS: The Dreamliner crisis ratcheted up the stakes in a labor standoff that was already contentious. Boeing executives declined an interview, but a spokesman said the company wants to keep the workforce competitive. After the Dreamliner was grounded, Boeing agreed to almost all of the union's positions - except that it wants to move new hires to a 401(k) instead of a pension.
JAKE ROSENFELD: The union actually has two sources of leverage that aren't usually present in these types of disputes.
GROSS: Jake Rosenfeld is a professor at the University of Washington, who researches unions. He says unlike most standoffs between workers and management these days, Boeing's engineers may have the upper hand.
ROSENFELD: One, the company needs to keep production going. It's an incredibly critical time for them. And the second point of leverage is that they are highly skilled and not easily replaceable.
GROSS: The company has leverage of its own. After a strike by Seattle-area machinists in 2008, Boeing built a Dreamliner factory in South Carolina, a right-to-work state. That prompted a National Labor Relations Board lawsuit saying that move was illegal retaliation. The board later dropped its suit after the company and the union reached an agreement. But Rosenfeld says that episode showed the company's willingness to move work away from union strongholds.
ROSENFELD: It has to be, if you take the long-term view, a worrying sign for the workforce.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING, DOOR OPENING)
BECKI NEEL: Hi.
NEEL: How's it going?
GROSS: All right.
NEEL: Come on in.
GROSS: The strike authorization vote is weighing heavily on skilled engineers like Becki Neel. She's a former Air Force pilot who now directs flight tests. She's not sure how to vote. The idea of going on strike is stressful financially, and she says a lot of people don't want to strike during the Dreamliner crisis.
NEEL: To know that your awesome, amazing, game-changing airplane is grounded across the world right now, is not a good place to be in. That doesn't - people have pride, and they want to get the plane back in the air.
GROSS: Union leaders say they hope a strike authorization will bring the company back to the bargaining table. But many Boeing engineers say if they have to, they're prepared to walk out. One is 27-year-old Daniel Peters. He says this isn't just about engineers, or about Boeing.
DANIEL PETERS: I see the pensions as really, one of the last bastions of middle-class security.
GROSS: Peters says because Boeing engineers are well-paid and highly skilled, they're in the unique position of being able to take a stand.
For NPR News, I'm Ashley Gross in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.