SEATTLE – The Boeing Co. and its machinists union have reached a tentative contract agreement, which if approved would end a three-week strike that shut down the company’s airplane production.

Mark Blondin, district president for Machinists District Lodge 751 in Seattle, confirmed the agreement Sunday and said union members would vote on the deal Thursday.

“I’m just proud of our membership,” Blondin said. “They stood solid, unified, and that solidarity is what finally got the company to do the right thing.”

Boeing spokesman Charles Bickers said the company believes the agreement is reasonable and reflects compromise on both sides.

According to Blondin, the deal calls for Boeing to make no changes to its current health care plan, despite huge increases in health care costs nationwide. That’s a major change from the premium and other increases that Boeing had demanded.

Pension payouts for union members would increase to $70 per month for every year served, up from $60 currently; the previous offer was $66. The company also agreed to continue offering retiree medical benefits for new hires, Blondin said.

There would be no general wage increase, but workers would receive an 8 percent signing bonus, or about $5,000, plus $3,000 payouts in the second and third years of the contract, he said. An earlier offer of incentive pay was dropped.

Blondin conceded Sunday that the union had hoped for a higher increase to pension payouts than is in the tentative agreement, but he said the fact that health care payouts wouldn’t change was, in the end, better for workers.

The average age of the workers represented is 49 and many have set a priority on retirement benefits. They are paid an average of $59,000 a year.

The strike began after workers rejected Boeing’s previous three-year contract proposal, described as “insulting” by their leaders.

About 18,400 Machinists who assemble Boeing’s commercial airplanes and some key components walked off the job on Sept. 2, forcing the Chicago-based company to immediately stop its airplane production.

Boeing Chief Financial Officer James Bell had said the strike could result in more than two dozen airplanes not reaching customers this month, although analysts said a strike lasting a month or less would likely not result in serious problems for Boeing.

Analyst Scott Hamilton said Sunday that an agreement was good for both sides and will allow Boeing to quickly regain the momentum it has built up this year in its commercial airplane business.

“I think (Boeing) figured that they had more to lose than the gain by continuing to take a hard line,” he said.

He added that Boeing should be able to make up for any lost airplane production relatively quickly.

The strike came as Boeing’s commercial airplane business, which had sagged under the weight of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a weak U.S. economy, started to improve. Boeing workers, some of whom were unhappy with a contract negotiated in 2002, had said they deserved a contract that more generously shared in the improving fortunes.

Boeing had racked up 529 orders through the end of July, compared with 299 orders for rival Airbus SAS. Airbus is ahead on deliveries so far this year, with 216 planes as of the end of July, compared with 179 for Boeing. Boeing expects to deliver 320 airplanes this year, and Airbus expects to deliver 360.

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