USA: Support the machinists’ strike against Boeing!

We all have a stake in this fight

Boeing, the largest private employer in Washington State and one of the richest corporations in the U.S., apparently hasn’t made enough profits. Never mind the $4.1 billion they made in 2007 or the $2.1 billion they made in the first half of this year alone. Forget about, back in 2003, when they held Washington state hostage – threatening to build the 787 “Dreamliner” in another US state – in order to blackmail the government into a $3.2 billion tax cut. And forget that Boeing has $346 billion in a record backlog of seven years of orders to fill.

Boeing machinists wildcat strikes

And now they want to squeeze even more profits out of their hard working airplane assembly workers who build one airplane a day. Stingy Boeing executives have been swimming in cash, yet it’s been four years since they’ve given a raise to the 27,000 members of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), District Lodge 751. Meanwhile, the cost of living has skyrocketed on everything from food to gas to healthcare. The raise in Boeing’s “last, best, and final” offer of 11% would not have kept pace with the rising cost of living because of what union members lost in wages in the last two labour contracts. Inflation in recent years averaged around 4.5%, but this year it shot up to 12%. The union’s demand for a 13% raise over the course of the 3 year contract would not keep up with the ground lost to inflation over the last 4 years.

There is a lot of resentment among union members over the past two contracts in 2002 and 2005. In 2002, 62% of union members voted to reject the contract offer, but the contract was forced upon them anyway because the union’s undemocratic by-laws require 66% of members to vote for a strike. By 2005, machinists were angered by the company’s cheap offer, when the company was prospering again, and they struck for 28 days but still never received a raise. Now with Boeing’s profits having increased 828% over the last five years, posting a record $13 billion in profits, machinists feel that it’s payback time. At every union rally and march workers chant: “Whose time is it? It’s our time!”

In 2007, Boeing Chairman and Chief Executive Jim McNerney raked in $19,000,000 in total compensation according to the Security Exchange Commission. Yet the starting wage for an entry-level machinist is a measly $9.72 per hour. This adds up to an annual salary that is less than the 2007 U.S. Census Bureau’s poverty line of $20,614 for a family of four. Machinist union activist Don Grinde says this starting wage has been frozen at the same level for 16 years since 1992 and that many workers qualify for food and housing assistance, just like workers at Wal-Mart.

According to the AFL-CIO, the average machinist would have to work 339 years to earn what Boeing’s CEO makes in a single year. “The fact is, by the time you’ve had your second coffee break on your first day, Boeing CEO Jim McNerney has already made more than you will all year,” said Mark Blondin, the IAM’s chief negotiator.

3,500 of the 27,000 members of the union make less than $15 per hour—hardly enough to live on in the expensive Puget Sound region. This second tier of mostly younger workers are paid much less than the rest of the workforce.

Other major sticking issues in contract negotiations are pensions, healthcare, and especially outsourcing. Company negotiators are trying to keep not only wages below the rising cost of living but pensions also. Boeing’s last offer would raise the monthly pension payment from its current rate of $70 a month to only $80 a month.

The inequality between executives’ pensions and workers’ pensions is shocking. Boeing’s top executives receive monthly pension payments of $4,000 per year of service for the company, whereas a machinist receives only $70 per year of service. So if an executive works at Boeing for 30 years, they would retire with a staggering $120,000 a month, whereas a machinist would receive a paltry $2,100 a month.

Boeing is demanding that employees pay more for their healthcare, too. They are demanding increases in workers’ monthly premiums, deductibles, out-of-pocket co-payments, prescription drug fees and other fees.

Outsourcing

But perhaps the key issue in this contract fight is job security. Boeing claims it needs more flexibility to remain competitive by outsourcing jobs to other countries and non-union companies with much cheaper labour and lower environmental regulations. However, Boeing has only one other major competitor in commercial aircraft production in the whole world, Airbus in Europe, which has a well paid unionised workforce. It has been Boeing, not Airbus, who has been leading the charge on outsourcing. So it is not true that Boeing has to outsource to keep up with Airbus.

Tensions over outsourcing developed in the 1990s when Boeing began a sweeping modernization plan of mass layoffs, outsourcing more and more of its production overseas. A few decades ago all Boeing’s planes were built in the U.S. Now a massive 70% of the work is outsourced. The machinists union had 50,000 members earlier this decade. Now they only have 27,000 members.

Ironically, though, outsourcing has backfired for Boeing to some extent, severely delaying the final assembly of planes. Boeing’s much acclaimed new 787 plane, nicknamed the Dreamliner, is suffering a year long delay because of delays in the delivery of airplane parts from other countries.

One of the most controversial provisions inserted into a recent contract allowed Boeing to contract out work to vendors who are often non-union with lower pay and benefits for employees. “Every time we turn our backs, they’re subcontracting work left and right on us” said Justin Hollibaugh, 43, a maintenance millwright and 20-year Boeing worker, who said he’s prepared to strike “as long as it takes.”

The IAM leaders are demanding the right to make a bid over the course of 6 months on any work that the company wants to contract out. However, the union leaders should challenge the very concept of outsourcing itself. The union leaders should simply demand what many other unions have — language in the contract that guarantees that all assembly work will be performed by the IAM. If the unions don’t challenge the logic of market competition inherent in the capitalist system, they may temporarily slow down the pace of outsourcing, but they won’t stop it.

Wildcat Marches in the factories

Anger over these issues was palpable on July 16 when 14,000 union members rallied at the Key Arena during a stop-work meeting, 99% of whom voted to authorise a strike if necessary. Chants of “Strike! Strike! Strike!” swept the fired-up crowd as they do at every rally these days. This massive turnout of the union’s membership could have been even bigger if Boeing had allowed not only two shifts to attend the stop-work meeting, but the third shift as well.

In an unusual demonstration of workers’ power, the rank-and-file union members have organised weekly or often daily wildcat marches through the major Everett and Renton plants during the first half of their lunch breaks. Dumbfounded managers couldn’t believe their eyes as workers began marching every Wednesday chanting and carrying banners with messages of union solidarity and demands for a share of Boeing’s $13 billion in profits.

Workers at the Renton plant take the first minute of every hour off to let the bosses know what workers’ power sounds like, with an enormous ruckus of air compressors, equipment horns, yelling, and banging. They call this “Operation Rolling Thunder.” During one of these operations, a union contract negotiator received a call from the shop floor, and he halted contract bargaining talks to let the Boeing negotiating team hear all the ruckus through the speakerphone on his mobile phone.

The machinists are clearly conscious of the factors putting them in an extremely strong bargaining position to win a model contract:

  • Boeing has a record backlog of seven years and more than 3,600 orders to fill. They are desperate to have the planes built and delivered before their customers start cancelling these orders.
  • Boeing’s profits rose to a record $13 billion in the last five years. So it is impossible for Boeing to credibly claim poverty when it is so far in the black.
  • Boeing’s claim that they need to compete doesn’t hold water when it has only one major competitor in commercial aircraft production in the entire world—Airbus.
  • FAA rules prohibit Boeing from replacing strikers with unskilled, unlicensed workers to build planes. Airline customers who are afraid of Boeing hiring inexperienced replacement workers off the street often tape off their planes to insist that their planes are not to be worked on during strikes.
  • The strike is expected to cost Boeing $100 million a day or $2.8 billion a month according to an analyst with Merrill Lynch & Co. In 2005 the machinists’ four-week strike cost Boeing approximately $1.5 billion when it had to postpone the delivery of 30 jets.

“We’re in the strongest position we’ve been in – in 10 years, and we intend to leverage that unity,” District 751 President Tom Wroblewski told the crowd at one rally. In fact, the company has already been forced to back down on three of its demands. Boeing backed down on its attempt to separate out the Wichita, Kansas, section of the IAM District Lodge 751 bargaining unit. Boeing was forced to raise its wage offer from 6.5% to 11%. Boeing also backed down on its proposal to strip future hires of a guaranteed pension as well as medical benefits for future hire early retirees. The Seattle Times expressed the corporate elite’s fears of the workers rising up: “One thing that must worry Boeing management now is that a new generation of workers is learning about union power and joining older employees in the long history of bad blood between the IAM and the company.”

Boeing negotiators were hoping that by backing down on these attacks, they could sweeten the deal for just over a third of the union members that they needed to vote for the contract to avoid a strike. They were wrong. A massive 80% of members voted to reject the contract, and an overwhelming 87% of union members voted to strike (far more than the two-thirds needed). However, under pressure from both management and the Democratic Washington State Governor, the union’s top two negotiators unilaterally decided to postpone the strike for 48 hours. Workers were outraged and booed the decision to postpone the strike as seen in this incredible short news clip (it may be necessary to click onto the one of the video “thumbnails” on the right).

The union leaders’ decision to postpone the strike put the brakes on the workers’ powerful momentum that culminated in the massive 87% strike vote. The workers would have been more united and empowered if they could have struck the day they had been looking forward to, rather than being ordered back to work for 2 more days.

But after the 48-hour extension, management only slightly improved their offer, still refusing to budge on the key issues. So on September 6th, the IAM District 751 struck.

What’s at Stake?

Boeing is one of the few living wage jobs left in the Puget Sound area, where workers can actually retire financially secure. Workers here in the U.S. and across the world have been under attack from corporate bosses for the past 30 years. Shareholders and executives have been able to make record profits off our backs through cutting our wages, benefits and pensions, while forcing workers to work faster and for longer hours. Workers and unions need to draw a line in the sand that we won’t allow Corporate America to cross. We need to say NO to outsourcing and NO to concessions!

The organized labour movement has been gradually haemorrhaging members for decades. The workforce’s level of unionization peaked at 35% in 1955. Now only 12% of the workforce is unionized, largely because of the outsourcing of heavily unionized manufacturing jobs. But if the IAM 751, one of the most powerful manufacturing unions in the country, wins this strike, it could be an important step in reversing this trend.

What will it take for the union to defeat Boeing and win a strong contract? Who will be able to weather the strike longer – Boeing or the machinists? Industry experts say Boeing could withstand a short strike, but it is important for Boeing that the Dreamliner 787 plane stays on schedule. “The plane which Boeing originally hoped to begin delivering in 2008 is now expected to begin reaching customers in the third quarter of 2009. Boeing was hoping to conduct the plane’s first test flight before the end of this year” (New York Times, September 6, 2008).

There comes a point when airline customers will start cancelling their contracts with Boeing, and it becomes more costly to Boeing to lose market share than it does to give in to the workers’ demands. Scott Hamilton of Leeham Co., a consulting firm in Washington state, agrees that Boeing needs to settle the dispute as quickly as possible: “The longer this goes on, the more the ripple effect will be, and the longer it will take Boeing to recover.”

IAM negotiator Mark Blondin says the union has a strike fund of $140 million from which they pay strikers $150/week, which is far less than machinists’ regular pay. However, the machinists union has quite an impressive fighting tradition of striking Boeing six times since World War II. “A union is about standing your ground and being tough. They don’t call us fighting Machinists for nothing” declared Earl Murikes, 52, a union shop steward and quality inspector for 737 planes wing production.

Tom Riley, 53, an inspector at the Frederickson plant says he’s been saving up money for a whole year for a possible strike. “We’re tired of them basically stealing from the skilled workforce. The bottom line is, we make the planes, and they can’t do it without us,” he said. Many strikers are looking for new jobs during the strike, which they are used to doing from Boeing’s history of layoffs and strikes. “We’re sacrificing today so we can eat better tomorrow, and for the future for our kids, too” explained Jeff Adams, 52, a facilities maintenance technician.

Strategy

In order for the union to win this strike, it has to show it’s willing to fight as long and as hard as it takes until Boeing realizes it’s going to lose too much market share because the workers won’t back down. As long as machinists hold the line and vote down future offers that don’t meet their needs, the machinists can win a model contract. As Will Crowley explained to supporters at a community solidarity meeting organized by Socialist Alternative: “Boeing is dripping in profits. The key is sticking together. They won’t replace us. They cannot replace us. If we stick together, we cannot fail!”

The strength of the union is in its 27,000-strong membership. The union can tap its members’ full power by involving the rank-and-file members in the running of the strike and ensuring that the new contract meets their needs. A strike committee should be elected by the 27,000 rank-and-file members to coordinate day-to-day activities and build mass support for the strike. All key decisions about the strike’s conduct should be discussed and voted on democratically at mass meetings of rank-and-file members.

The union is in a strong position, but it may not win all its demands if the union has to fight this battle alone. If all the unions at Boeing halted work and completely shut Boeing down, it would send a much more powerful, effective message. The Teamsters Local 174 that delivers airplane parts to Boeing, the security guards’ union, and the SPEEA engineers union should all honour the machinists’ picket line. SPEEA’s contract expires on December 1st, and they could dramatically strengthen their bargaining power for their own contract negotiations if they honoured the machinists’ picket lines and if the machinists, in turn, honoured theirs.

We need to take this struggle out to the labour movement and the wider working class of the entire region, and we need to explain that the outcome of this struggle will affect all workers. Washington’s workforce is the fourth most unionised in the country (www.bls.gov). The IAM should appeal for other workers’ and unions’ active support in organizing mass rallies and picket line blockades to completely halt production. Donations for the strike fund should be raised. Unions should pass resolutions in support of the machinists and bombard Boeing negotiators Doug Kight and Tim Healy with phone calls and emails demanding that they meet the machinists’ demands.

The IAM needs to explain to all workers why they should support Boeing machinists in their fight. The union needs to reply to the corporate media’s arguments that machinists are well paid, by explaining the benefits of unionization to other workers, encouraging other workers to unionise themselves, and using the Boeing strike to rebuild the labour movement.

One of the best ways to get non-union workers on the machinists’ side is if the union fights not just for machinists but for all workers. For example, the union could call on Boeing not just to end outsourcing but also to end mandatory overtime and create more living wage jobs. The average machinist is forced to work almost 7 weeks of overtime a year. The union could demand an end to this unhealthy workload which would create approximately 5,000 new living wage jobs instead. This would galvanize support from underpaid, unemployed, or non-union workers because they would see that the labour movement is fighting not just for its own members but for all workers.

The slogan of the strike – “It’s our time this time!” illustrates a growing sentiment among the American working class that the time has come to fight back. For too long we have had our pensions raided, our healthcare benefits stolen, our jobs taken, and our wages pillaged by corporate bandits. No more. In this deepening economic recession – perhaps even depression – workers will eventually be compelled to rise up and take back what is rightfully ours – economic security and time to spend with our friends, families, and neighbours. The Boeing machinists are leading a charge that will shake the lines of the corporate elite. If the rest of the labour movement lined up in solidarity, following their brave example, we could begin to turn things around for the working class.

Boeing machinists wildcat strike