Why the IAM said no to Boeing’s blackmail

November 27, 2013

On November 13, the 31,000-strong International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) District 751 voted by a two-thirds margin to reject a proposed eight-year contract extension with the aerospace giant Boeing.

Ranked 30th on the Fortune 500 list of largest U.S. companies, Boeing is the world's largest aircraft maker and second-largest defense contractor. But the company has been carrying out a war on union workers at its flagship Everett, Wash., plant. In the latest round, management threatened IAM workers that if they didn't pass the contract extension, Boeing would move production of the new 777X plane to another state.

David Clay has worked at the Boeing Everett plant for 36 years and walked the picket lines during the strikes in 1989, 1995 and 2005. He's been a toolmaker, among many other jobs, a longtime union activist and former Governmental Affairs Chair and District Lodge Officer. He ran for District office twice against incumbent IAM leaders, but no longer has any official role with the union. He spoke with Darrin Hoop about the rejection of the contract extension, recent local political developments and the lessons he's learned about building a union reform movement within the IAM and at Boeing.

WHY DO you think there was such a resounding "no" vote?

I THINK that the rank-and-file membership saw through the takeaways and didn't see anything that was going to be a benefit to themselves now, or to their families in the future, and they turned it down.

Supposedly, this offer was a surprise that just took place within the last week, which the company dropped on the union leadership. But on November 16, Tom Buffenbarger, the IAM International President came out and said that he--along with District Lodge 751 President Tom Wroblewski and Mark Johnson, the aerospace coordinator--had been working on this for months with the company.

The feeling we got was that there was something being cooked up in the backroom, just like the prior contract extension, where we weren't informed of anything. It was just dropped on us, and we were asked to vote. It was more like blackmail: You either take this, or we're going someplace else. And the membership just said: Go for it. We're not going to hurt our families now. We're not going to hurt our community in the future by accepting this takeaway contract.

Inside the Boeing factory in Everett, Wash.
Inside the Boeing factory in Everett, Wash. (Jetstar Airways)

WHAT WERE the key concessions everyone was opposed to?

NUMBER ONE, this contract was meant to divide the membership--divide the new hires from the people who've been there a long time. The demographics of the company now are probably a 60-40 split between people who have been there 25-plus years and people who have just been hired in the last five years.

After 2016, there wouldn't have been a defined pension program any longer. They're taking a look at how that would hurt the people coming in as well as the people who had been there for decades. What would happen to their pension under this new plan that the company was offering?

The other thing was the medical premiums. Our coverage was going to decline, but the premiums would increase. Also, they were offering a supposed $10,000 signing bonus, but these huge bonuses after taxes are not going to cover the increases on our medical.

Another huge issue is that today, it takes about six years for somebody to go from entry-level wages to maximum wages. In three months, if you're a new hire, you're doing the same thing as the guy next to you who's been there for 25 years, but you're making less than half.

The corporate news media is always talking about all the money that we make. I heard that the average Boeing worker makes $82,000 a year, which is not true. The new hires are making a starting wage of something like $14 an hour. Under this contract extension blackmail offer, it would have been 16 years to go from entry level to maximum wages.

It doesn't just affect us. Once this company gets a concession like that, companies in other industries--at the grocery store, the post office, at any job--are going to try and do the same thing to their workers, especially non-union workplaces. For all these young people, or anybody entering the labor market, it's going to take them close to two decades to go from entry level to maximum wage.

AT THE end of the 2008 strike, a four-year contract was signed. Then, in December 2011, management and the union leadership opened up that contract one year early and negotiated the four-year extension you're currently working under. Was there any precedent for this? How did that previous extension lay the groundwork for this attempted eight-year extension?

THERE WAS absolutely no precedent for that. There was no need for it either. I've been here for 36 years. I've never seen or heard of anything like that in any industry, let alone our own.

Any time the company wants to introduce a new model variant, what are they going to do? Call for another contract extension. It will be never ending. If we hadn't said no, then this precedent would continue on. I think we were caught blindsided in 2011. That's one of the reasons why we turned down this contract extension blackmail.

IN 2003, the Washington state legislature passed $3.2 billion worth of tax breaks for Boeing to keep work here. Right before this most recent contract vote, the state, led by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, called a special session of the legislature and passed $8.7 billion in tax breaks. This would be the largest state tax break ever for a company. It extended ones that were going to expire in 2024 though the year 2040. Do you think what happened in 2003 set a precedent for this time?

FROM WHAT I remember about the first set of tax breaks, those were done to ensure that the new 787 aircraft would be built here in Washington state. But as we soon found out, it wasn't. Despite the fact we had given them huge tax breaks in the state as a quid pro quo for building it here, they moved it out of state. There's a lesson to be learned there that we didn't learn.

AT THE same time Boeing is receiving record tax breaks, King County Metro Transit recently announced, due to a $1.2 billion loss of sales tax revenue since the recession started, it may have to cut 74 bus routes entirely and reduce more than 100 other routes. What do you think about this?

I THINK it's all very shortsighted. We don't have enough money to fund what we have now. And yet we're going to take $8.7 billion out of the kitty.

It's not just about transportation. There are a number of services that go to the community which that money isn't going to be there for, when this corporation is making mega-profits--the most profits it's ever made in its history. The next time they say jump, all of our legislators will say: How high? That's what they did now.

THE IAM members voting down this contract comes on the heels of the possible passage of a historic referendum for a $15-an-hour minimum wage in SeaTac, the suburb where the international airport is located, and the election of the socialist Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council. Do you see any connections between these struggles?

THE CONNECTION that can be drawn is that people's eyes are being opened to corporate greed. There needs to be a more equitable system. It's becoming more apparent that we aren't a two-party system. It's really one party. There's a big media machine out there that tries to drown out voices calling for social justice, but I think this only enlightened the membership.

I don't have a problem with socialism. I think this country has a lot of socialist programs that have worked well for us: Social Security, pensions, welfare for those who need it, public education and transportation. It's all socialist.

And it can go further. I think in the last few years, since 2008 especially, we see that the robber barons and the banksters are alive and well. I think people are getting more of a consciousness awakening. There has to be something better because what's good for business isn't necessarily good for the citizens or the community. In fact, they're working against us just to line their own pockets.

DANA CLOUD wrote a book called We Are the Union: Democratic Unionism and Dissent at Boeing, which tells the story of the 1995 strike--in it, she interviewed you and some of the other reformers. One of her critiques is that the different reform groups put too much focus on union elections and not enough on building lasting rank-and-file organization. In retrospect now, what do you think about this?

I THINK that critique is probably correct and has some value. You don't have to be in office to move the leadership, just like we did this week--that's a huge movement that was led by the people, with no particular one leader. But what happens is you see things aren't moving. There are people within the group who become the leader, though not necessarily because they want to be the leader. Circumstances make those people leaders.

The option then--if you aren't able to drive things as quickly or as effectively as a rank-and-file movement--is to do it from the top. To actually be a person who is in a position, district council or local lodge officer, district president or the secretary treasurer.

I think that it may very well be that people can build a shop floor movement. You can drive, but not be the one sitting in the driver's seat. You can make the person in the driver's seat go where you want to go if you have the energy from the shop floor.

AT ONE point in the 1990s, between the Puget Sound area in Washington and Wichita, Kan., there were three different rank-and-file reform groups organizing within the IAM at Boeing. Why were there separate groups? What lessons have you learned from that experience?

I THINK that the different groups had a common goal of making things better or making things more inclusive, but we had different views on how to get it done. I think it worked to our disadvantage and to the advantage of the incumbents, because we didn't work together. We were able to mend some fences down the road.

The group that I led wasn't necessarily as radical as some of the other groups. I was hoping for change within. I was willing to work with some of the people who were already in place, because I thought they had some value. They knew the process. I didn't think that everybody was evil. That was the thought pattern of some of the other groups, too.

But in retrospect, they were all evil. I should have been not so trusting of the incumbents. I learned some big lessons.

ARE THERE any final lessons you have learned from your 36 years of experience that you would want new generations of workers who are trying to organize now to know?

THIS ISN'T a sprint. This is a marathon. Battles aren't won in miles. They are won in inches. You have to keep this in mind. I think the rank-and-file groups forgot where they started, where they were at, and how far they had come.

We've been pushing on a rock wall here for a long time. We've moved it. If we only got an inch, an inch is as good as a mile, because it wasn't moving to begin with. And we got to move it an inch. I think you have to take every inch that you win as a victory.

I've spent pretty much the majority of my lifetime in this--I won't see the end of it. I never expected to. I think you have to keep your eyes on the prize. You can do amazing things. You just have to remember where you're coming from and where you've made it to--and don't give up.

Meredith Reese helped with transcribing this interview.

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