Standing up against Corporate America

September 19, 2008

The strike at Boeing by 27,500 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) is in its third week. Despite earning record profits of over $8.5 billion since the last strike was settled in 2005, Boeing forced the IAM onto the picket line with an offer that included inadequate pension and wage increases, more outsourcing of union jobs and increased health care costs.

The stakes for the labor movement are high. Boeing is the world's second-biggest commercial airplane manufacturer, the Pentagon's number-two military supplier, and the largest exporter in the U.S. But the IAM has arguably the most leverage it has ever had. Boeing has a record eight-year backlog of 3,400 plane orders worth over $346 billion. This includes 900 orders worth $155 billion for the 787 Dreamliner, the most anticipated commercial jet in history, according to Business Week.

On a visit to the Boeing picket line in Everett, Wash., Darrin Hoop spoke to IAM strikers Don Grinde, a 31-year employee at Boeing, and Steve Parsley, who has been at the company for more than 19 years. Both are overhead crane operators. They're on their fifth and fourth strikes, respectively, against Boeing.

WHY IS this strike so important?

Don: There are a lot of reasons. Looking at the big picture from our past, I think we're standing on sacred ground, from our forefathers [who made] sacrifices. I think it's important that, in this contract, we're trying to share in a small percentage of the profits that we've earned for Boeing--$13 billion. We're asking for less than 1 percent. That's not unreasonable. In fact, it's an absolute bargain.

This contract also represents the future, because we know that when the market turns down, they're going to be coming back for concessions. So we need to stand our ground and make some serious gains, and make this strike count.

WHAT ARE the most important issues in the strike?

Don: All the public can see is the money, because that's all that Boeing wants to talk about.

We're here, number one, for respect and dignity--something that the company doesn't want to give us. It continually touts messages and slogans of "team building," "world class," "most valuable assets." These are deceptive slogans and advertising, much like the U.S. government does. It's about dignity--and calling them on the carpet on that.

Don Grinde (left) on the Boeing picket line
Don Grinde (left) on the Boeing picket line (Chris Mobley | SW)

There's also outsourcing. We have numerous letters of understanding in the contract that allow vendors to come in and directly work on the airplanes.

We aren't asking for Boeing at this point to stop the global development of the 787. What we're asking for is to get control of the work that we're doing in house, on site, in our factories. They're bringing in scab outfits, non-union outfits. The workers are making about $10 an hour, what a new hire at Boeing would make, and not anywhere near what the maxed-out employee would be making--say, $25-30 an hour. They're cutting our throats right before our eyes.

SOME SOURCES say that 70 percent of the Boeing planes are now built by non-union, outside sources. Does that sound accurate to you?

Don: That sounds totally plausible. I would think it might even be higher than that on the 787. Each generation of airplanes that we've had during my career here in the last 31 years, every airplane that comes on board has had a higher and higher content of outsourced work.

What you can do

At the 751 Rank and File Voices Web site, run by Don Grinde, a 31-year member of IAM District 751 and crane operator at Boeing's Everett, Wash., plant, you'll find updates and commentary on the strike. Check out the video of the march out on September 5.

The site also has a PayPal link to donate to a new member hardship fund.

This airplane, the 787, I call the Wal-Mart airplane concept. They even outsource the wings and the stub, which Boeing always touted as its core competency. The leading premier technology that keeps an airplane manufacturer in business is the ability to produce wings. That's where the most engineering emphasis is placed on an airplane.

Well, they even offloaded that. The design, the construction, everything. And now that plane is 15 months behind schedule. They're having problems with a major subcontractor from Japan over the wings and the stub.

Since the 1970s, we've lost nearly 50 percent of our membership. It's been outsourced, offloaded, fired and gone non-union. I'm talking about both Boeing and [the IAM] across the nation. They pretty much are in sync.

So the overall numbers for the IAM have gone from 900,000 approximately, down to 400,000 today. At Boeing, specifically in the Puget Sound area, we've gone from 45,000 union members working on the airplanes in the early 1990s down to a high now of 25,0000. So even though we've seen 5,000 or 6,000 jobs come back since 2005, we're still down 20,000. That's a lot of people.

WHAT ARE some of the other issues?

Don: Pensions have been a two-decades-old battle. We've been lagging behind other industries and other unions. In fact, our own union leadership has pensions that are 300 to 400 percent more than the average rank-and-filer. We're hurting. We want someone to listen and make sure that money gets put in there.

Boeing doesn't want to do that. They want to play games. They have the mentality that if the serfs get their head above water, then the other serfs will want the same thing. Serfs, the blue-collar workers, are going to actually make a gain? Corporate America isn't going to allow that.

Our current CEO is James McNerney. He came from 3M. Before that, he came from the Jack Welch school at General Electric. We have a very knowledgeable mainstream, big corporate name up there. When he was at 3M, he shut down three plants and laid off 6,000 people.

THE COMPANY is offering an $80 pension multiplier. What's the union asking for?

Don: Boeing started at $70. The union is asking for $100. I think if we get up in the $90 bracket on pensions, we can probably accept that as a partial victory. I'm not going to be satisfied until they are over $125 or up with other unions. But that's another day and another battle.

We have the subcontracting and the pensions, and we also have new hire wages. The new hires haven't had a GWI [general wage increase] since 1992. I think the minimum wage has probably almost doubled in that time, and new hires are still stuck in the past.

We need flat raises. I want to get away from percentages. They're deceptive. They aren't fair. I want to see a flat raise. A dollar figure spread across every pay grade. Our pay grades are separating.

The other issue is the takeaways in the medical, in the co-pays. The maximum deductibles have gone up thousands of dollars.

Another issue is the COLA [cost of living adjustment]. They stole our COLA from the last quarter. The COLA is in the toilet to begin with. We got a mere 40 cents. We need $3.60 to break even this year. They took that 40 cents and converted that into the bribe money--the signing bonus for the contract.

These guys are flush with cash. They're rolling in dough. They're laughing about it. In fact, these bastards in corporate are stuffing their pockets with millions in cash and stock options. They're paid to be the chainsaw guys. They're doing a good job. They're screwing all the workers out here--the people who only cost 5 percent of the airplane, but we help produce 100 percent of the profit.

These people are saying no. They need to go pound sand. We need to draw a line and make this strike count.

IN 2002, Boeing was able to convince just over a third of machinists to vote against striking. Because of union rules requiring a two-thirds vote for a strike, the contract automatically passed. But there was a strike in 2005. What lessons did you all learn from the 2002 and 2005 contracts?

Don: There's a lot of bitterness. That 2002 contract was a hard lesson learned for everyone. There had been rumors for decades that if we just voted a contract down, but didn't go on strike, we could send them back to the bargaining table.

That isn't how it worked. We got a rude awakening. We were stuck with a terrible contract. The 2002 contract financially was better than the 2005 contract. But in the 2005 contract, the union president, Mark Blondin, came back and said, "Buy it. It's a done deal. It's over. We've got a tentative agreement." He made that call on his own without running it by the rest of the leadership or a critical review.

[The strike mediator] was our good friend, [former Democratic Rep.] Dick Gephardt, the guy we were going to endorse for president. He went back and cut our throat with the Boeing company. He was a paid hack, a shill. I was so disgusted, because I looked up to that guy--and then he sold us out. I was very disillusioned with politicians.

WITH ALL the new hires, why weren't people divided this time? Why didn't they go for Boeing's "last, best and final" offer?

Don: We have a history. We had tremendous rank-and-file activism on the shop floor. We had the typical union administration flyers for communication. They've been doing a pretty good job, all in all. But it really boils down to the members getting involved.

The company and Corporate America are steamrolling over your union leadership. So if I have one message to anybody out there, it's that you've got to stand up. Your leaders aren't going to do it for you. Your officials aren't going to do it for you. We have to do it for ourselves.

And until you're willing to sacrifice for your own welfare when somebody comes after you, nobody in an elected office is going to do it. You've got to do it.

When we stood up, we had several marches of 7,000 strong inside the factory. I think that was the pinnacle of rank-and-file activism, where you have 7,000 members marching, demonstrating, chanting, protesting, blowing horns, raising hell. Not doing anything wrong. Just demonstrating on lunch. A peaceful protest. I think that had a huge impact.

The marches were once a week, every Wednesday, starting the first week of August. We had them on all the shifts. Then in the last two weeks, they were stepped up. The last week, they went every day. The rallies were every single day--once per shift at lunchtime. Steve Parsley led the last march out on September 5.

THESE MARCHES weren't organized or sponsored by the IAM?

Don: No, this was all rank-and-file activism. They were definitely [union] administration people involved, and shop steward organizations. It was a solidarity movement between factions, between groups, because placing the good of the membership above politics is what was required to pull that off.

OVER 20,000 machinists work in that plant. How did you communicate with everyone?

Steve: I would use a bike, until management said it was a safety concern. I would go around on the bicycle, ride down the aisles of every building. I got on that bullhorn, and let people know when and where the rallies were going to be--any information that I could get out there.

Don: It was all by word of mouth, through the shop steward networks, through my networks, through the union administrative networks, through private e-mail, through company e-mails.

Frankly, I didn't give a crap if the company read them or not. In fact, I hope they did. I always took that tack that when I wrote an e-mail and used the company system, I assumed they were reading it.

HOW MANY people were part of your activist network at the start?

Steve: We did this in 2005 during our last strike. We probably started out this time with maybe four or five of us to get going. The more we got going, the more people volunteered, the more people wanted to hold banners out front, the more people would ask if there was anything they could do. We probably ended up with 20 or 25 people that wanted to help organize the actions.

CAN YOU describe what it was like at the rallies?

Steve: The biggest ones were during the day shift, where they had 7,000 people. Don Grinde and others who organized those. I work the second shift. We had probably 3,000 or 4,000, but we don't have as many people working on second shift as day shift does.

When everyone is coming together, the feeling is just incredible. To have that many people support our leadership, coming together and standing for workers' rights, there are no words to describe it.

Now we have to do all that during lunch, supposedly. Once you get that big, the company can't stop you, because are they going to can 4,000 people? Doesn't happen.

We have a lot of new people on second shift. This being their first strike, a lot of them in the beginning were scared to come out, because management was running around saying, "If you leave, we're going to can you." On the last one, the majority of them came out.

TELL US about the organizing of the picket line here. Can you describe what it's like?

Steve: We started this in 2005. This is the crane crew, first, second and third shift--a little bit of all shifts. We do this every Wednesday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. We do our picket duty here. We bring our barbecues. As you can see, we've got a band over there.

But inside the plant, before it happens, you just get a hold of the stewards or somebody that you know will pass the word on to the other shifts. We're doing this again. The word spreads. We've got people from other areas. And we don't turn anybody away as long as we have food.

WHAT WILL it take to win a good contract?

Don: Everybody's got their own price tag in their own head. My philosophy has always been that I'm not going to leave anybody behind. I will not vote for a contract that divides our membership--that leaves one demographic behind. That's unacceptable.

We're either all going to win, and we're all going to take the same contract, or not. I'm going to be pushing for the pensions, the subcontracting issue and general wage increases for everyone.

Steve: You have to address the major issues: outsourcing, better benefits, no takeaways--especially in our medical.

Unfortunately, there's not enough press about our factory service attendants, which is janitorial work. They start out at $8.72 an hour. [On that wage], a family of three will be on food stamps. A world-class company actually has people on food stamps. The American taxpayer subsidizes that, when the company is making billions of dollars.

To me, they could offer me the world, but if the [factory service attendants] don't get anything, I'm still voting no.

GIVEN THE economic crisis that's brewing, the bailouts for the big banks and the elections coming up, how important is this strike for organized labor?

Don: It's shaky ground, the economy. It shows a lot of intestinal fortitude on the part of the members to stand up in a scary time, and say that we're important, too. We are just as important as the people in the boardroom. Our families are just as important.

I think it sends a clarion call to America to stand up. If you've got issues, stand up--don't sit down. Even if it's bad, we've got to stand up.

Steve: Why is it important for labor everywhere? Because if we don't do something--whether it's us or someone else--to slow down or stop the outsourcing, there's going to be no more middle class left in the U.S. If that happens, everybody is going to be making minimum wage or a little bit above.

I always revert back to Ford, GM and all the car manufacturers. People say that it was the unions that broke them. Look at Merrill Lynch. Look at Enron. It was Corporate America that did that. It wasn't us. Ford and GM have shipped a lot of their vehicles overseas and down to Mexico, and they're making them at dirt-cheap prices down there.

It's not about what it would take to satisfy our contract. It's about Corporate America controlling individuals, all of labor. And if we don't stand up to them, we are going to lose, and America is done.

If everybody stays united and stands strong, we are going to win this.

Chris Mobley and Jorge Torres contributed to this article.

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