This article was originally published on Portside.
Local IAM District 751 union leaders in the state of Washington are feeling the fallout of Boeing’s extremely well-orchestrated counteroffensive begun immediately after Nov. 13 when 67% of union members rejected the company’s concessionary contract extension through 2024 of an existing agreement that does not actually expire until 2016.
Everyone expected Boeing would turn up the heat by threatening economic catastrophe for the Puget Sound area and thousands of lost jobs but these unionists were blindsided from a most unexpected source.
The IAM international, overruling local leadership, abruptly announced a Jan. 3 vote of another extension agreement eerily similar to the one that had just been rejected.
District 751’s website reported “International President R. Thomas Buffenbarger ordered the vote over objections of 751’s elected officials… and announced the Jan. 3rd vote to the Seattle Times on Saturday, Dec. 21.”
Obviously disappointed with the national leadership, a longtime IAM member told me “this rushed vote is not right,” and pointed out “35% of our members are on vacation during this period,” unable to get the information and participate in a democratic discussion.
Plus, he said with some exasperation, “not one phone call, no contact whatsoever from our international. We had to read about the scheduled Jan. 3 vote in the Seattle Times.”
This same source reported the IAM international refused District 751’s request to postpone the vote by even one working day to give more time for review of the contract by workers just returning from the annual holiday vacation period.
But District 751 did officially report a partial solution “recognizing that many of our members are on approved vacation and out of the area on the voting day of Jan. 3, District 751 got the International President to grant authority to do a one-time absentee ballot process….”
It was clear from the beginning national IAM officials were upset with the Nov. 13 overwhelming rejection of their deal with Boeing and they seemed to be making the point more emphatically by ordering a new vote over the heads of elected local leaders.
Only a few days earlier, a veteran unionist expressed to me with some pride about “our members overwhelmingly rejecting Boeing’s ‘race to the bottom’ and rejecting tearing apart 78 years of bargaining gains. We want the Boeing 777x production line to be located here but their price was just too high. It would dismantle our wage and benefits base and would cripple the economy of our communities.”
It’s true, the price was high, very high.
How High is Too High?
Readers may recall the company’s November offer as described by IAM District 751 president Tom Wroblewski:
“Freezing your pensions, eliminating them for new Machinists….Raising everyone’s health care contributions by as much as $4,000 a year over 2011 levels….Limiting future wage increases to 1 percent every other year, and locking in current starting pay rates until 2024, when thousands of Boeing jobs would be below minimum wage.”
This “race to the bottom” was from the world’s largest aerospace company reporting profits of $6.3 billion in 2012. It really was a horrendous proposal and it was a breath of fresh air to finally have a sizable industrial workforce shouting out a resounding “No!”
It was also truly quite remarkable in today’s labor scene because the company repeatedly threatened severe job losses if it were not accepted. This intimidation is normally quite effective.
As a result, rejection by these large numbers does not happen very often. Workers are usually forced to yield to full-out corporate power in the absence of an organized union opposition. And in this case, even though the District 751 IAM local leadership was apparently overwhelmingly opposed to the original Nov. 13 proposal, their public voices fell silent under pressure from the IAM international.
Things have changed. Now, despite even more intense pressure from the international, District 751 leadership is openly opposing Boeing’s slightly modified terms by “adamantly recommending members reject…the new offer to be voted on Jan. 3 [because it] contains no significant changes” from the Nov. 13 version and “because of the massive takeaways.”
An experienced Boeing unionist emphasized to me these takeaways are completely unjustified, “labor costs account for only 5% of production costs as it is,” he exclaimed.
Contrary to this view, the international union’s Dec. 26 letter to Boeing members stated, “new improvements to the contract offer adds more than $1 billion to the previous offer. This represents a ‘significant’ improvement worthy of the membership’s consideration.”
Critics respond that this figure is quite misleading since it includes $720 million of pay progression that exists in the current contract. In addition, the total package is still less than Boeing’s profits in 2012 alone. District 751 firmly reiterated its view that the deal lasting through 2024 “would place our members in an unacceptable position over 11 long years without the ability to negotiate any reasonable improvements during this time period.”
Well-Tested Concessionary Script
Boeing’s pressure campaign continues to play out in ways that vividly reveals how corporate and political power stack the deck against workers. For example, since the Nov. 13 rejection vote, Boeing unleashed a bidding war in 22 states as alternative production sites for the 777x wide-body production line.
“Race to the bottom” bids came from an array of bipartisan liberal and conservative politicians, each pitching literally billions of dollars in tax write offs, lower wage rates and compliant labor forces that “would not strike” according to Mobile, Alabama mayor Tommy Battle.
Previously, Washington state passed legislation offering Boeing $8.7 billion in tax breaks over 16 years, the largest state corporate subsidy in U.S. history.
But, not to be underbid, almost the entire California congressional delegation wrote Boeing on Dec. 5 that “we have every confidence that the State of California…will respond with a very competitive application for Boeing to consider.”
A Georgia economic-development official told Reuters the state was “salivating” after the Machinists’ rejection vote. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s representatives boasted that his state was named by Forbes Magazine as the most “business-friendly” in the nation. Meanwhile, the memory-challenged Texas Gov. Rick Perry tweeted his state “is a right-to-work state w/ low taxes, smart regulations & skilled workers — perfect for @Boeing 777x manu!”
These giveaway incentives whet Boeing’s ravenous appetite and dampen legitimate collective bargaining efforts of Machinists to uphold decent wage and benefit standards.
Unfortunately, instead of challenging company threats with a public campaign against Boeing’s extortion, international IAM officers conceded “…the fact that several states have tendered serious offers and incentive packages to the Company, the timeline for the Puget Sound area is expiring.”
In effect, this places political pressure on workers refusing deep cuts rather than on a company demanding excessive profits.
To make matters worse, other aerospace union leaders joined the bidding war as if throwback concessions forced upon them have somehow evolved into a bargaining advantage.
Me or We
The Seattle Times quoted the financial secretary at United Auto Workers Local 148, which represents Boeing workers in Long Beach, California as saying that his union already accepted some concessions that Machinists in Washington rejected. For one thing, the union representative said, new UAW Local 148 workers don’t get pensions — something Machinists in Washington, he observed, have refused to give up.
Again, the Dec. 17 Seattle Times further described the views of the UAW 148 bargaining committee chairman as believing the current union contract with Boeing has company-friendly elements compared with the Machinists union contract.
While the UAW international declined our request for an interview, UAW 148 president Stanley Klemchuk did tell me that “of course we would like to get the work but we are not trying to steal any jobs.”
Nonetheless, at least some of the comments cited above make clear that corporate threats against job security takes a powerful toll on the consciousness of workers – UAW 148 faces closure by Boeing of their C-17 military transport production line in 2015 – suggesting each local make it own deals instead of standing together to uphold national standards.
This false consciousness is the sad and tragic legacy of concession bargaining that subverts solidarity by squeezing workers desperate for jobs.
Thus, the stand of so large a number of Boeing workers stands in sharp contrast to standard “defensive” bargaining of the last decades where negotiations are seen through the narrow prism, or prison, of only trying to keep concessions to a minimum.
As we have described, Boeing workers are up against mounting threats of job losses. They are feeling it every day from the media, from politicians, from government, from Boeing, and most disgracefully, they are experiencing gross interference from their own international officers under the pretext of giving members a right to vote.
The Jan. 3 vote will be watched closely. Don’t these workers deserve our full support if ever we are to escape the spiral of concession bargaining and “race to the bottom?”