Solidarity with Boeing Workers!

Labor Fightback Network

On November 13, more than 31,000 Machinists, all members of District 751 of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), rejected by a 2-1 margin the concessionary contract put forward by Boeing Corp. Six weeks earlier, the company had demanded a re-opener of the contract — which expires in 2016 — and new contract language as a condition for manufacturing and assembling the new 777X wide-body jetliner in the Puget Sound region of Washington state.

“Failure by the Machinists to accept the terms of the contract extension,” said Ray Conner, the chief executive of Boeing’s commercial aircraft division, “would leave us with no choice but to open the process competitively and pursue all options for the 777X.” Conner went on to explain that Boeing was considering 21 alternative sites across the United States for the production and assembly of the 777X should the Machinists reject the company’s demands. (Seattle Times, November 13)

When they went to the polling booths in their union halls on November 13, the Local 751 Machinists were fully aware of the company’s attempt to whipsaw Machinists in Washington state against their counterparts in Utah, California, Alabama, Missouri, South Carolina and other states. For weeks the company’s spokespersons, the local newspapers, and the state politicians — including Senator Patty Murray and Governor Jay Inslee, both Democrats — had been urging the workers to vote YES on the new re-opener and contract, warning that a NO vote could mean a loss of up to 56,000 jobs in the industry and a crippling blow to Washington state’s economy.

But the workers were mad as hell that a company that was enjoying record profits ($6.3 billion reported in 2012), record stock prices, and near-record backlogs was demanding a contract extension till 2024 with a whole list of unacceptable takeaways. Boeing’s decision in October to reward executives with huge bonuses and shareholders with a $10 billion stock buy-back and a 50 percent dividend increase only added insult to injury.

The new contract terms and concessions demanded by Boeing include the following:

  • Language that gives Boeing the ability to outsource 777X work packages “in whole or in part” for any number of reasons, plus a refusal to use current Local 751 wing-line mechanics to build 777X wings;
  • Freezing workers’ pensions and eliminating them for new Machinists;
  • Destruction of workers’ retirement security, with proposals that would decrease Boeing’s contributions to employee retirement plans by two-thirds if a worker is at maximum pay in a given labor grade — and more if a worker is still in progression;
  • Sharp increases (up to $4,000 yearly) in workers’ health-care contributions, including 10 percent annual increases in health-care insurance premiums (triple during contract), deductibles and co-pays that double — with new contract language that would give Boeing the “flexibility” to cut workers’ health-care benefits in the future, without negotiations; and
  • Guaranteed wage increases that average 0.5 percent over the life of the proposal — which works out to less than 15 cents an hour for the average District 751 member — and locking in current starting pay rates until 2024, when thousands of Boeing jobs would be below minimum wage.

After the vote totals were announced on the evening of November 13, with 67 percent opposing the Boeing takeaways, workers interviewed by the Seattle Times expressed the anger of the majority of the union’s rank and file over the company’s blackmail and union-busting tactics.

Robley Evans, a forklift driver in Auburn, Wash., who helped lead the VOTE NO push, said, “I couldn’t be more proud of my brothers and sisters. We stood against the wall. We won. We saved our union tonight. That contract would have destroyed our union.”

Hazel Powers, a tooling inspector in Auburn, said she voted no to defend the pension and to save new hires from a reduced wage structure. “I’m not going to sell out,” Powers said.

IAM Leadership Orders Contract Re-vote

Apparently displeased with the results of the November 13 vote, the IAM international leadership announced on December 21 a re-vote on January 3 of a contract-extension proposal made public by Boeing on December 12 that is almost identical to the one that District 751 members had rejected in November.

The website of District 751 informed its members that, “International President R. Thomas Buffenbarger ordered the vote over objections of District 751’s elected officials . . . and announced the January 3rd vote to the Seattle Times.” The local union’s leadership and membership only learned about the re-vote from the media.

The local leadership objected to rushing a vote at a time when roughly a third of the union members are on vacation — and thus unable to get the information and discussion necessary to be able to cast an informed vote. Their stand resulted in the IAM International leadership’s agreement to allow a one-time-only absentee ballot process so that workers on vacation could cast their vote in a mail ballot.

District 751 Leaders Call on Members to Vote NO!

But, unlike the vote on November 13, where the District 751 leadership had taken a neutral stand on the company’s proposed re-opener and contract, this time the District 751 leadership is strongly urging a NO vote.

The editorial in the December 2013 “Special Contract Vote Edition” of Aero Mechanic, the monthly newsletter of District 751, quoted IAM District 751 President Tom Wroblewski as saying that “the District 751 leadership is united in emphatically recommending that members again say NO to Boeing and reject the offer.” Wroblewski explained that despite some minor modifications by the company to its initial contract proposal, “the fact is that Boeing’s offer is still a bad one that would impose drastic concessions on retirement and health-care benefits and limit future wage growth.”

In a separate statement published in this special issue of Aero Mechanic, Wroblewski also addressed the confusion caused by the December 26 Letter to IAM District 751 members by IAM International President R. Thomas Buffenbarger urging members to ratify the contract.

Wroblewski stated, “I’m sure that it is confusing to receive two separate mailings from the same union, one encouraging members to vote YES on the proposal and the other urging members to vote NO. It is confusing and unfortunate. . . .

“International President Buffenbarger believes a YES vote is the only way to win 777X jobs for Washington state. While he certainly has the right to his opinion and the right to share it with our members, our elected District 751 representatives here in Seattle disagree with his analysis.

“We don’t feel the changes Boeing has made to its offer since November are significant and they don’t address the major issues that members found objectionable in the first vote. We also believe that the promises Boeing is making about the 777X are too sketchy, with too many big loopholes, to be counted on.”

Wroblewski concluded his statement on a militant note: “We can prevent Boeing from ripping away benefits and pay that we have earned with our performance, today and over the past 78 years, and we can do that by rejecting the Boeing offer on January 3.”

Wroblewski and the District 751 leadership were joined in their denunciation of Boeing’s latest contract offer by Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council who, in an article published in the special issue of Aero Mechanic, called Boeing’s latest offer “a slap in the face of the Washington state workforce.”

“In this re-opener,” Johnson continued, “Boeing is demanding unprecedented takeaways for their workers at a time when the company is making unprecedented profits, sales and giving out huge executive bonus packages. This is a case of a company that is flush with cash, orders and profits not only refusing to maintain its workforce’s existing wages and benefits, but also demanding that they give up their pensions under the threat of moving work elsewhere.”

United We Stand, Divided We Beg!

Boeing’s threat to move production to one of the 21 states on its bidding list is posing a major challenge to the entire labor movement as unions are being pressed to back city and state legislatures in their quest to offer huge tax write-offs to Boeing to woo them to their state. Many of the incentive plans include “no-strike pledges” during the life of the contract. And, to be expected, the right-to-work (for less) states are touting their union-free workforces, low taxes and lack of regulations.

With workers hungry for jobs across the country, the pressure to give in to the corporate whipsawing strategy, which only pits workers against each other in a race to the bottom, is intense.

Yet despite these pressures, the voice of solidarity has not been drowned out.

Gordon King, the president of the Machinists union in St. Louis, Mo., dashed off an angry letter to the press to answer a false statement by the state’s governor, Jay Nixon, who claimed that the Boeing Machinists in St. Louis would accept a contract like the one the Washington  Machinists had defeated in November.

“This is totally false,” King said, insisting that he would not even present to his members the contract Boeing offered machinists in St. Louis. Not only that, King said that the 777X should be built in Washington. “My brothers and sisters in Seattle are the most qualified and experienced to perform that work,” King said.

Another example of the kind of labor solidarity that is needed to defeat the corporate divide-and-rule strategy was expressed by Erin McGee, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO. (South Carolina is a right-to-work [for less] state, where Boeing is building its new 787 Dreamliner thanks, in part, to the big tax-incentives package provided by the state legislature.)

Sister McGee put it this way in a statement dated December 30:

“In 2012, the CEO of Boeing made 793 times more than the average worker. In 2013, in South Carolina the value of subsidies that Boeing received was $120 million. So the average worker making around $35,000 is helping to subsidize a CEO who makes over $27 million and a company that collects billions of dollars in subsidies nationwide.

“The Machinists in Washington state will vote again on a contract this week. There is a lot at stake in this vote, not only for the workers in Washington state but for workers all over this country — both union and non-union. As Boeing and other large corporations try to break unions and our Governor Nikki Haley says that unions are not needed or wanted, what does that really mean? Does it mean that workers in South Carolina deserve less?

“It means that instead of a United States of America, we are heading more toward the Divided States of America, as each state gives out more subsidies to the corporations and asks for less for its workers. It means an America that will continue to see wages and benefits go down while the costs of goods, health care, and education go up.

“It means a country where someone arrested for a crime has more rights than an employee does on his job. The jobs we have enable us to support our families. Do we want their opportunities in life to go down? We have been complacent for too long, and we must remember the age-old union slogan: ‘United We Stand, Divided We Beg.’ Now is the time to stand in solidarity with our union sister and brother Machinists in Washington state!”

Learning the Lessons of Past Defeats

The year was 1981. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO) went on strike to protest poor working conditions and win higher pay and a shorter workweek. The Reagan administration took steps to fire the strikers and bust their union. This posed a critical choice for the rest of the labor movement: either sit back, do nothing and allow the federal government to get away with union busting; or demonstrate solidarity with PATCO and bring the full power of labor to bear in PATCO’s support. Unfortunately, it was the former course that was chosen, and the union went down to defeat with its leaders led away in chains. And after it was over, many trade union leaders exclaimed, “We made a big mistake. We should have shut the country down and defended our brothers and sisters.” But it was too late for that.

The year was 2011. Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker was hell-bent on severely cutting public workers’ wages, benefits and working conditions, and destroying their unions’ bargaining rights. Again the rest of the labor movement faced a critical choice: either divert the massive mobilizations that were taking place into electoral channels and get the workers off the streets; or declare a crisis warranting building ever larger mobilizations of trade unionists and our allies from around the country and defeating Walker’s union-busting campaign. Unfortunately, the dead-end electoral strategy was the one pursued and the workers went down to defeat.

There have been other tests and crises for labor both before and after 2011, notably the $85 billion bailout of the auto companies while Detroit’s public workers’ benefits are being slashed to the bone. Again, united labor action and mobilization were critically needed to avert this outcome, but again it was not forthcoming.

Now we have another watershed moment involving Boeing’s demanding horrific concessions from its Seattle workers under threat of packing up, leaving the area and eliminating their jobs. Isn’t it time to draw lessons from past defeats? Isn’t it high time for labor in concert with its allies to draw a line in the sand and beat back this union-busting attack by this multi-billion dollar corporation?

Isn’t it the responsibility of the entire labor movement, beginning with the labor movement in Washington state, to pledge their full support to a massive mobilization campaign to prevent Boeing from transferring production out of state should the Boeing workers vote down the company’s offer?

District 751 workers should know that there are plenty of us out there who have their back and will do everything possible to build broad support for their struggle. A defeat for Boeing workers would mark a tragic setback not only for the labor movement but for the working class as a whole. Labor must not allow Boeing to prevail here! If ever there was a time to give meaning to labor’s clarion call for SOLIDARITY FOREVER, this is it!

So how would a solidarity campaign work? That would depend on what the IAM District in Washington state wishes to do. Here are some ideas that might be worth considering for starters:

  • Establish teams of Boeing workers who could travel the country addressing local unions’ membership meetings, delegate assemblies, executive boards, central labor councils, regional and state bodies, etc.;
  • Draft a model resolution calling for support for Seattle Boeing members that labor and community groups would be asked to adopt;
  • Petition campaign;
  • Letters to the editor campaign;
  • Media campaign;
  • Solidarity rallies and demonstrations;
  • Labor/community campaigns discouraging any site that Boeing was talking to regarding relocation to oppose stealing jobs of Seattle workers, citing the statement of Missouri IAM leader Gordon King.

 

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