US: An insider’s view of the Boeing strike

Interview with striking machinist

Twenty seven thousand Boeing workers, members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, struck for 57 days in September and October, in one of the biggest strikes in recent years. The strike was settled on 2 November, when 74% of machinists voted to accept a new contract. Workers won a number of concessions from management, including rescinding proposed cuts in medical benefits and a promise to protect 5,000 parts delivery and facilities maintenance workers from layoffs. However, Boeing kept control of the right to outsource work, which will threaten more Machinist jobs in the future.

Justice (newspaper of Socialist Alternative – CWI in the US) interviewed striking Machinist, Will Crowley, in October, while the strike was still going on, about his views on the strike.

Justice: Do you want to talk about some of the issues that provoked the strike?

Will Crowley: The company has adopted “lean manufacturing” from Japan – the ability to reduce labor and material costs. Management wants to reduce [unionized] labor with outsourcing.

What strategy is necessary for the union movement to fight back successfully?

One of the major problems in U.S. labor and in our strike is that we’ve chosen to go against class struggle. We want to avoid the types of Change-to-Win, Andy Stern direction. They deal with secret agreements and partnership models and they use compromise. The problem is the compromise is always on the workers’ end.

And so the Machinists, the AFL-CIO, and the working class needs to reject those types of partnership models and return to class struggle. Class struggle is what is going to build mass movements of workers. I think it’s important for this strike to act as a spark, or as a catalyst, to not only increase education, awareness, and international struggle, but rebuild the working class.

Could you describe the marches that have been going on in your workplace?

As contract negotiations moved into July and August, what started as a monthly march then became a weekly march. Then the last week or two prior to the vote on the contract became a daily march. For one minute, at the top of every hour, workers would make noise utilizing rivet guns, air hoses, whistles, horns, buzzers, bells – whatever type of sound they could generate they would generate in solidarity. And at everybody’s lunch break, you would march. And these were spontaneous. Very quickly, the workers understood the importance of having solidarity and we no longer needed the union leaders to direct us.

The young members are not in the best situation in the world. How do you think you got such an overwhelming strike vote?

I think a lot of the credit had to go to older workers who, in the face of intimidating tactics, mandatory videos, and unfair labor practices, openly combat and correct the unfair labor practices that management was forcing upon the younger workers. That, combined with workers who had been through strikes, gave them the courage to show solidarity in the face of potential management disciplinary action.

You ran in the past against the existing union leaders. How did that affect these negotiations?

It was incredibly thrilling because we were involved in canvassing, campaigning, and confronting the old guard. And so our purpose was to put pressure on the union officials. We need to have the rank and file organized independently so they can make the union officials fight for workers’ economic and political rights.

What it did was put a fire under the old guard because this campaign was well-orchestrated, well-thought-out, and well-executed. Ultimately we lost the elections and were unable to displace the old guard.

However, my intent was primarily and foremost to put rank-and-file pressure on the union officials to fight, and I think the primary goal was achieved.

The critical thing about this strike is how it fits into the larger context of worldwide workers’ struggle. When you look at what’s going on currently in Venezuela and Bolivia, it shows that just when you think the ruling class is going to extinguish all hope and crush workers’ economic and political activities, you have workers’ power shining through the strikes, through international solidarity, and through workers organizing themselves across borders.

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November 2008