Just weeks after Washington State voters decisively approved marriage equality, the Boeing Company told union negotiators that it intends to deny pension survivor benefits to same-sex married couples.
"Boeing says to employees that they can be discriminated against based on who they are," says Ray Goforth, executive director of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), IFPTE Local 2001. Goforth was sitting at the negotiating table representing 23,000 Boeing engineers and technical workers in ongoing talks over retirement benefits when the company said it wouldn't budge on the issue.
The union has long sought equal pension benefits for same-sex domestic partners, to no avail, Goforth says. But since voters approved same-sex marriage—establishing parity with married straight couples—Goforth reframed the proposal to apply to gay SPEEA members who wed. "Their answer was that they had no intention of granting pension survivor benefits to legally married same-sex couples because they didn't have to," he explains. Boeing representatives told him that the federal law governing pensions doesn't recognize same-sex marriage, thereby trumping the state law on the matter.
"We were profoundly disappointed to see that they would use a loophole to engage in institutionalized discrimination," Goforth says.
Since The Stranger broke the story online on November 21, it has gone viral, grabbing headlines on Gawker, Huffington Post, the Advocate, scores of political blogs, and in local media, including the Seattle Times. "I can't recall a single issue in negotiations that drew this sort of interest," says SPEEA spokesman Bill Dugovich.
And Boeing defenders have since made plenty of rationalizations, including the claim that the company's hands are tied by federal pension rules. That's not true, says Dugovich: "Federal law does not tie their hands... the Boeing Company can grant this."
It's a pattern that is par for the course: Boeing donated to the 2009 campaign allowing domestic partnerships, but it refused to grant equal pension benefits to gay employees who availed themselves of the law. And even when this year's gay-marriage referendum came to the ballot, Boeing donations were conspicuously absent. The gay-marriage campaign had a high-profile roster of donors, including massive donations from these companies or top executives: Microsoft, Amazon, Zillow, Costco, Hulu, and the Mariners. But Boeing's name is absent from that list with the exception of one $5,000 donation from, wait for it, an engineer (like those in the union fighting for equal pension benefits).
Boeing has meanwhile been performing damage control.
Doug Alder, a spokesman for the aerospace giant, says, "Any assertion that Boeing discriminates is blatantly false and, quite frankly, offensive." Also on November 21, Boeing issued a statement to its employees saying it is "taking a closer look at how [the same-sex-marriage law] might impact company policies once it takes effect in December."
Asked directly, however, if Boeing did, in fact, refuse these benefits at the negotiating table, Alder evaded the question. "Nothing is ever final in negotiations until they're over," Alder told me. "What we said... is that [these pension benefits] are not currently addressed in the contract."
But speaking for the union, Goforth says Boeing was unequivocal. "They were clear in negotiations—they were quite firm—that they weren't required to honor Washington State law on this matter. They said they weren't going to."
If I were to bet, I'd guess that Boeing will change its tune by the time negotiations are over.