Still hanging tough at Boeing

October 20, 2008

Darrin Hoop explains why the Boeing strike could set an example for organized labor's fight for job security in tough economic times.

THE BATTLE to defend union jobs at Boeing and win decent pension benefits continues as a strike by 27,500 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) enters its seventh week.

"It's important to stand up now because we've been watching our jobs erode--not only here in this state, but across this country for quite a few years now," Rick Bender, president of the Washington State Labor Council, said on the picket at line at Boeing. "It's time for us to step down, and step strong--to put our feet down, and say, 'Look, it's got to stop. You've got to start addressing this issue of keeping these jobs here in this country.'"

The machinists are asking for livable wage increases, higher pensions and increased medical coverage--which the immensely profitable Boeing can easily afford.

But the number one issue is limiting outsourcing and solidifying the future membership of the IAM. Boeing's current proposal would eliminate 2,000 jobs relating to material delivery, inventory, and distribution of parts, materials, and equipment.

Striking Boeing workers on the picket line outside the Everett, Wash., factory.
Striking Boeing workers on the picket line outside the Everett, Wash., factory. (Jim Levitt)

It was Boeing's insistence on increased outsourcing that led to the collapse of the short-lived return to the negotiation table October12 and 13.

Yet the longer the strike has continued, the more support grows for the IAM across the labor movement. On October 9, more than 300 machinists and their supporters from a number of unions walked the picket line at Boeing Field in Seattle. The event was sponsored by the different unions at Alaska Airlines--the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), IAM District 143 and the Teamsters--and by ALPA pilots at United Airlines.

The strike has shut down production and led to a net loss for Boeing of more than $1.3 billion in the first month of the strike. But Boeing isn't hurting for money. Since 2002, the company has made more than $13 billion in profits off the backs of 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.

And because of Boeing's importance to the U.S. economy, the workers at the rally understood the connection between the machinist's issues and their issues.

"The issues affecting the pilots of Alaska Airlines are much like the issues affecting the folks here at Boeing--we call them the cornerstones," said Sean Cassidy, an ALPA member and captain with Alaska Airlines. "One is work rules, including pay. Another one is health security. Another one is retirement security. The final one is job protection and job security. It's really no different then all the issues affecting these folks here at Boeing."

Not only does Boeing have record profits right now, but it also has a record eight-year backlog of 3,400 plane orders worth over $346 billion. Yet IAM membership at Boeing commercial aircraft facilities in the Puget Sound area has shrunk--from about 45,000 members in the early 1990s to 27,500 today.

This loss of union jobs, along with Boeing's hard-line tactics in the current contract, have led to backlash among the rank and file. Also, during the strike, machinists have seen the $700 billion bailout to the banks. So while the machinists struggle to survive on a $150 a week strike pay, the richest Americans have made out like bandits.

Jerry O'Donnell, a 30-year toolmaker who works at Boeing Field for Boeing's Integrated Defense Systems, commented on this latest example of social inequality.

"You've got these executives who continue to get these million-dollar bonuses and buy their yachts, and it's really frustrating to me," O'Donnell said. "I don't think they've earned that right. [It's] because of the buddy system up there--giving themselves these big bonuses. I think it needs to be spread out amongst the middle class. Without the middle class, you only have two classes. One or two percent of those is going to be the high class and everybody else is going to be at the bottom."

THAT CERTAINLY describes the situation at Boeing. An executive who "earns" $300,000 a year will receive an annual pension of $144,000, or $12,000 a month--five times what the company is offering the IAM. And the top executives who get $3 million a year receive an annual pension of more than $1.4 million, or $120,000 a month.

However, the union has also drawn a line in the sand. "Because the Boeing Company refused to make a commitment to the very people that have made them successful, they'd rather rely on outside people to come in and mess with the system that our members have perfected and are willing to perfect even more, Mark Blondin, the IAM's International Aerospace Coordinator and lead negotiator for the contract, said on the Everett picket line October 15.

"We are willing to embrace new technology and give new innovations and processes, but the company has to make a commitment that they'll be here tomorrow. We aren't going to agree to language that will turn our backs on these people--and they are talking about a couple thousand jobs they'd like suppliers to do."

Fortunately for the machinists, they aren't alone in this struggle. For every one of the 300-plus supporters that turned out for the solidarity rally on October 9, there are literally millions of other workers around the U.S. who are facing similar issues and can be won to supporting the demands of the IAM.

"If Boeing succeeds in taking things away from their employees, other corporations and airlines will look and say, 'Hey look at what they did, maybe we can do that, too,'" said Deanna Hill, a 17-year flight attendant at Alaska Airlines and vice president of the 3,000 members of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA at Alaska Airlines. "It's really important that we stand together in this struggle."

With Boeing wanting to deal the IAM a severe blow with its increased demands for outsourcing, and with the economy worsening every day, workers may have to look back to the rich history of labor struggles in the U.S. for inspiration, said Joel Funfar, an engineer at Boeing Field and a rank-and-file member of the negotiating team for the 18,000-member of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA). Although SPEEA is crossing the IAM's picket line as required by its contract, the engineer's union supports the strike and faces its own contract deadline in December.

"I think you have to look back at labor history," Funfar said. "In the '30s, they went on strike during the Depression. They fought for their benefits. If they could do it then, we can do it now. People have to think long term. Corporate America is going to use this economic crisis as an excuse for all kinds of takeaways. And they will never give it back once they take it away. When times get better, they won't turn around and give you back money."

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