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Machinists reject contract but fail to authorize strike
What happened at Boeing?

By Lee Sustar and Darrin Hoop | September 20, 2002 | Page 11

BOEING WORKERS voted by 62 percent last week to reject a job-killing contract--but because of union rules the contract will go into force anyway.

Because the International Association of Machinists (IAM) requires a two-thirds vote for strike authorization, even a solid rejection by the 26,000 commercial aircraft workers wasn't enough to stop the disastrous deal. Moreover, passage of the contract will encourage unionized employers everywhere to step up their attacks on unions.

But if Boeing workers didn't have confidence in their ability to strike and win, it's because IAM leaders systematically undermined union activists who did organize against the contract. "The leadership of the IAM from [President Thomas] Buffenbarger on down is incapable of providing militant leadership," said Keith Thomas, a veteran rank-and-file activist in IAM Local Lodge 834 at Boeing's plant in Wichita, Kans. "The two-thirds requirement is there because the IAM wanted it there."

The agreement will allow Boeing to use nonunion subcontractors in the assembly plants alongside unionized workers--clearing the way for more job cuts following the 30,000 layoffs announced last year. The deal will also increase monthly health insurance premiums for traditional service by 900 percent and leave pensions at near-poverty levels.

But even after massive layoffs supposedly prevented under contracts negotiated in 1999 and--following a 69-day strike--in 1995, IAM officials barely organized any opposition to Boeing's demands.

Union leaders apparently believed that Boeing managers--termed "partners" by the IAM--would give them a face-saving deal at the last minute. When that didn't happen, officials urged members to reject the contract and to re-authorize a strike in an August 28 vote--giving workers just one day to review the deal.

In the midst of voting, IAM President Thomas Buffenbarger announced that the union and the company had been "ordered" by a federal mediator to continue negotiations while the contract was extended by 30 days--and ordered that ballots be sealed. In reality, the mediator had no authority to issue such an order--and Boeing had made no agreement to extend the old contract.

While management met with the federal mediator, it refused to meet with the IAM.

Finally, Buffenbarger agreed to hold a new vote--with a letter to the rank and file that could only be interpreted as discouraging a strike. "If IAM members were out for four months, Boeing would shed crocodile tears while pocketing $450 million--money that could cover up their losses in their financing and leasing businesses," he wrote. "But IAM members and their families would feel that $28 million in lost paychecks each week. They would feel it big time."

"It wasn't a call to arms, it was a call to surrender," Thomas said. "He made it seem like Boeing would make money if we went on strike, when it would have cost them $2 billion minimum."

Thomas produced a series of rank-and-file newsletters to expose the union-busting nature of the contract and mobilize for a strike. But by then, union members were so distrustful of IAM officials that Boeing could convince enough of them to swallow this deal.

"Now we'll go back in, and the IAM and Boeing will be shoulder to shoulder," Thomas said. "It's a sorry state that the union has allowed the membership to come to this," said Don Grinde, a crane operator at Boeing's huge plant in Everett, Wash., and a longtime activist in IAM District 751. "The union has a mandate to change the way it does business. We change as a union or we die. That's what the future holds."

One key union reform that Grinde wants is a rank-and-file vote for shop stewards. "Currently they are appointed and removed by union officials," he said. "They need to be elected. There needs to be more education for stewards. We need a recall mechanism for stewards. We need chief stewards. The union has flooded the floor with stewards who are ineffective. Their main role is to protect their job, protect themselves from layoffs."

Those and other reforms can begin the effort to rebuild the IAM. IAM officials' shameful performance around this contract has underscored the fact that the initiative to strengthen our unions must come from the rank and file.

Boeing helicopter

PHILADELPHIA--Some 1,400 workers went on strike at Boeing Co.'s helicopter manufacturing plant as Socialist Worker went to press.

The workers, members of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 1069, walked out over management demands for big increases in workers' payments for health care. The company also wants union-busting "flexible" work rules to gut seniority rights.

The workers had been without a contract since September 1. The plant, which makes parts for the CH-47 Chinook helicopter and the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft that is still under development.

With billions in military contracts locked up for years, Boeing can well afford to cover health care costs and respect union rights. Instead, Boeing is using the certainty of fat profits in the future to try and starve workers into submission.

It's the first strike at the plant since 1974.

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