By Mike Andrew, Associate Editor
In the first challenge to the state’s Marriage Equality Act since voters approved it in November, Boeing says it will deny pension survivor benefits to same-sex spouses. The company’s contract talks with SPEEA, the union that represents some 23,000 Boeing engineers and technical workers, broke off on December 5 without an agreement on the pension issue.
The pension controversy began on November 21 when, according to SPEEA spokesperson Bill Dugovich, the union asked what appeared to them to be “a simple administrative question” – how would the company handle benefits for new Gay and Lesbian spouses?
“We were shocked,” Dugovich said, when Boeing negotiators told them the company had no intention of paying survivor benefits for same-sex spouses, even though the new state law gives them equal standing with opposite-sex spouses.
Boeing officials walked out of talks November 29 while SPEEA’s team was presenting their pension proposal. A federal mediator reconvened the talks December 4, but they broke up on December 5 without any agreement on the pension issue.
SPEEA member Kenneth Aphibal posted a petition on change.org calling on the company “to honor the people of Washington State by extending survivor benefits to employees of same-sex married couples at Contract Negotiations and show equality for all Boeing employees.” The petition now has 76,802 signatures.
Pension survivor benefits are one way that married couples – same-sex or opposite-sex – can make sure at least one of the partners enjoys a secure retirement even if the other one dies.
The SPEEA team was taken aback when Boeing asserted that they were not required to offer survivor benefits to same-sex spouses because their benefits package was administered under ERISA and not under state law.
ERISA – the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 – is a federal law enacted to regulate employee benefit plans, including health insurance and pensions. Many union benefits plans are administered under ERISA rather than state laws.
Because ERISA is a federal law, and DOMA forbids the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, Boeing said it was not required to offer same-sex couples equal benefits. SPEEA is not so sure, Dugovich said.
“We’re consulting our attorneys,” Dugovich said. “Discrimination is discrimination. At some point discrimination laws come into play.”
SPEEA secured medical benefits for same-sex domestic partners in 2000, Dugovich added, and those benefits will remain unchanged, but the union expected Boeing to accept the state’s new marriage law.
SPEEA says that The Boeing Company wants to eliminate all defined benefits pensions, beginning with new hires, and eventually terminate their pension program altogether. In addition to pensions, outstanding issues in the talks include wages, medical insurance, family leave, and the company’s use of outside contractors.
To date, SPEEA has emphasized it is “doing everything possible to avoid the need for a work stoppage,” but barring some movement in the negotiations it may be impossible to avert a strike. At SPEEA’s request, the Martin Luther King County Labor Council granted the union strike sanction on December 5.