Boeing strikers more determined than ever

October 7, 2008

Darrin Hoop looks at the next stage in the battle taking place at Boeing.

THE STRIKE at Boeing entered its fifth week with negotiations on hold as the profit-hungry airplane manufacturer tries to make workers hungry enough to settle for a concessionary contract.

Taking on Boeing are 27,500 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM).

Since 2002, Boeing has made over $13 billion in profits off the backs of the machinists, engineers and other Boeing workers around the U.S. Boeing is the largest exporter in the U.S. and the Pentagon's number-two military supplier.

The company can easily afford to meet the workers' demands for livable wage increases, higher pensions and increased medical coverage. But the number one issue is limiting outsourcing and solidifying the future membership of the IAM--and management is bitterly opposed to putting real job security in the contract. Given similar issues at other employers, this strike has broad implications for the entire U.S. labor movement.

As Steve Parsley, a 19-year crane operator, explained while on the picket line in Everett, Wash.:

Boeing machinists march to their union hall to vote on the company's final contract offer
Boeing machinists march to their union hall to vote on the company's final contract offer (Robert Sorbo | Reuters)

All across the U.S., this isn't just about Boeing outsourcing. This is about the U.S. outsourcing. Maybe we can't stop it at Boeing, but we can sure put a dent in it, and maybe other unions across the U.S. will stand up and say enough is enough.

It's not just about the almighty dollar. It's about Boeing controlling its workers, and it's all about corporate greed all throughout the U.S.--them taking whatever they can take from us.

It doesn't matter whether you're union or not. The person working at 7-11, the person working at Home Depot, the person working at Wal-Mart--every single individual needs to stand up and tell our government, "See ya." Because right now you've got millionaires running this country. Millionaires are only going to take care of themselves in the long run.

FOR THE IAM, this is the seventh strike in its history at Boeing, and the second in two contracts in a row. This strike is now longer than the 28-day strike in 2005.

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.

What you can do

To keep up the pressure on Boeing and build solidarity, union airline workers are hosting a barbecue for the striking machinists on October 9, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Gate C-39 at North Boeing Field on East Marginal Way in Seattle.

To donate to the IAM 751 Hardship Fund, please call 1-800-763-1301.

Meanwhile, according to the 31-year Everett crane operator and union activist, Don Grinde, the IAM has seen it's national membership drop from approximately 900,000 members in the early 1990s to around 400,000 today. And in the Puget Sound area at Boeing, it's been cut from around 45,000 to 25,000 in that same period.

As the strike settled into a trench warfare, the financial crisis threatened to hurt Boeing. That's because the billionaires who ran the world's largest insurance company, American International Group (AIG), before it was nationalized by the U.S. government, also controlled a subsidiary of AIG, International Lease Finance Corp. (ILFC).

According to MarketWatch, the ILFC is the world's largest aircraft leasing company. It's one of Boeing's biggest customers and has, according to a Boeing spokesman, 102 firm commercial aircraft orders with Boeing. Under the terms of the federal government's bailout, AIG must sell off assets like ILFC to pay off its enormous debt. If AIG's financial problems affect ILFC, it could lead to orders being cancelled--which would hurt Boeing financially.

This only raises the importance of the machinists striking to make sure that the costs of the economic crisis aren't put out on their backs--and that the immense profits they've earned for Boeing are used to help them win a solid contract.

During this battle, the IAM has been able to expose the dirty tricks of Boeing management. On August 28, IAM District 751 filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, charging Boeing with engaging in an unlawful secret strategy to avoid the union and deal directly with employees.

According to the IAM's Web site, Boeing accidentally sent the union an e-mail from a Boeing communications representative assigned to the negotiators, describing their strategy. The e-mail exposed a systematic campaign to interrogate employees in "one-on-one" meetings about specific contract proposals, a violation of federal labor law.

It's these kind of heavy-handed tactics that have led to the incredible solidarity so far in the strike, according to Grinde. "The members have to stay tight and solid," he said. "Keep the unity up--that's number one. If we don't have that, we're screwed. So far, we've got that. Our scab rate is very low. I've heard there are approximately 70 scabs in Everett, and 40 in Renton. We're talking about less than 200 people companywide in the Puget Sound area, out of 25,000 people. That's good."

WHILE THE machinists dig in, Boeing's other main union, the 18,000-member Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), has a contract that expires December 1. As they have attempted to do with the IAM, Boeing is trying to take away pensions from new hires and force them into a 401(k) plan.

Other issues include attempts to reverse Boeing's shift of around $8 million in health care costs onto the union earlier this year. SPEEA, like the IAM, also seeks to limit outsourcing. Also, SPEEA wants a higher cost-of-living adjustment and raises of 10 percent in each year of the proposed three-year contract.

Meanwhile, another aerospace industry struggle could have an impact on the Boeing strike. On September 28, 1,000 production and maintenance workers, members of the IAM Local 735, struck Vought Aircraft's Nashville plant. The biggest issues are changes to the medical plan, switching any worker with fewer than 16 years of experience from a pension to a 401(k) and freezing the company's contributions to the pension fund.

These workers build wing and tail assemblies for some Airbus jetliners, C-130 military cargo planes and Gulfstream business jets. According to the Nashville Business Journal, Vought is one of the world's largest independent suppliers of aerostructures.

Vought, which has over $1 billion in sales annually and is owned by the Carlyle Group, is also one of Boeing's biggest suppliers. At its other plants around the U.S., it manufactures structures and parts for the 747, 767, 777 and 787.

In fact, according to Vought's Web site, in June 2006, it opened a new 342,000 square-foot manufacturing plant adjacent to the Charleston International Airport in Charleston, S.C., to build the "aft fuselage sections 47 and 48" for the new Dreamliner 787.

A successful outcome in both the Boeing and the Nashville IAM's strike could give confidence to workers in Charleston and elsewhere by setting a high standard for workers in the industry.

For now, the machinists' strike has caused Boeing immense financial problems. According to a company spokesman, Boeing had planned on delivering 119 planes in the third quarter before the strike, but only ended up delivering 84. And one anonymous Wall Street analyst told the Seattle Times that the strike has cost Boeing $1.3 billion so far.

"People should come out, whether you're union or not, and walk the picket line with us," said Steve Parsley. "Hold a picket sign. Show us your support.

"I think whether it starts with the Boeing Company or somebody down the road who only has 10 members, and whether it's a different union or the IAM, I think people need to unite all across this country. Stand up and tell not only our government, but every business in the U.S., that enough is enough."

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