Voices of the union rank and file

We are the Union:

Democratic Unionism and Dissent at Boeing

IF ONE only reads the business press these days, they would see the Boeing Company hailed as a “market darling” by publications like Forbes. Boeing, ranked thirtieth on the Fortune 500 list, is the world’s largest plane maker, and the second largest defense contractor for the US military. It’s a company that is not only crucial for US capitalism, but for international capitalism as well.

Wall Street investors and their ilk in Boeing management view the workers at Boeing as mere commodities used to achieve record profits. Fortunately for those who see Boeing workers as active participants in the daily class struggle to fight for and hold onto at least some of the wealth they create, we now have We are the Union: Democratic Unionism and Dissent at Boeing.

The focus of the book is the decade’s long struggle between management and Boeing’s biggest union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), and in particular its strike in 1995. The IAMAW blazed the strike runway against Boeing management with seven work stoppages, from a 140-day wildcat strike in 1948, to a fifty-two-day strike in 2008. Other strikes occurred in 1965, 1989, 1995, and 2005.

 The 1995 strike lasted sixty-nine days. It began on September 13, with 26,000 workers in the Puget Sound, 7,400 in Wichita, Kansas, and 1,200 in Portland, Oregon downing tools.  On November 19, a tentative agreement was reached with the union’s negotiating team recommending a “yes” vote. Then, for the first time in its history, the rank and file rejected a contract recommended by its negotiating team. The strike continued for another twemty-two days. The final contract victory included lump sum bonuses, base pay wage increases, and ongoing cost of living adjustments, along with preserving health care benefits at no cost to the workers and strengthening language against subcontracting union jobs.

The strength of Cloud’s book is the emphasis placed on the voices of the rank and file to tell the story of the 1995 strike. There were three different rank-and-file dissident groups or reform caucuses within the IAMAW: the Unionists for Democratic Change (UDC) led by Keith Thomas and others in Wichita; the New Crew or Rank and File led by Don Grinde and others in Everett; and Machinists for Solidarity (MFS) led by David Clay in Everett.

UDC and the New Crew were allied caucuses that communicated with one another between Wichita and the Puget Sound. While MFS had many similar goals and mobilized the rank and file in similar ways, it maintained its own organization separate from the other two. Cloud explains the various intricacies of why the groups never united.

All three formed out of the 1989 strike. Key to the second “no” vote in 1995, and coming out of the 1989 strike, the ranks won the right to have three days to look at a contract proposal before voting on it. It took years of organizing and experience for the success of 1995 to occur. The leaders of all three groups (Thomas, Grinde, and Clay) had worked at Boeing for over fifteen years. Also, Thomas and the UDC studied other important national reform caucuses like Teamsters for a Democratic Union in order to learn from them.

The most common employee critiques of Boeing management included: outsourcing of union jobs to not only overseas plants, but increasingly to non-union workers inside Boeing plants; resulting layoffs and lack of job security; declining health and pension benefits; problems of racism and sexism in the plants (Cloud conducts multiple interviews with workers who have faced oppression at Boeing); and the use of the irregular workweek where machinists might work two shifts three days in a row and then have three days off.

Cloud details the challenges of fighting management and a union leadership committed to labor management-partnership around two key issues: the formation of a joint union-management safety committee and the creation of the High Performance Work Organization (HPWO).  The joint safety committee replaced the union grievance procedure, so now the union shared guilt with any safety problems.

The HPWO, along with similarly Orwellian sounding programs, like Quality Through Training and the Continuous Quality Improvement program, was designed to streamline the production process. Workers helped management combine job classifications so fewer workers ended up doing more work.

The rank-and-file caucuses circulated newsletters, like the UDC’s Floormikes and informational flyers by the thousands. Various workers tell inspiring stories of marches, both inside and outside the plants. During contract negotiations hundreds of workers banged on equipment to let management know they were united. While the UDC and the New Crew involved smaller cores of one or two of key workers, MFS claimed to involve a couple hundred rank and filers in their organization.

In addition to the positive lessons, Cloud also draws out comradely disagreements she has with them. First, while the reformers believed in union democracy, they were often pessimistic about the prospects for mobilizing broader numbers of the rank and file to organize and fight. This would often lead to—especially in UDC and the New Crew—a small number of leaders substituting themselves for broader collective struggle.

Second, while they rightly criticized the union leadership or the Administrative Caucus (AC) for focusing too much on elections and not enough on the shop floor, they ended up replicating the same patterns of overemphasizing the importance of union elections to the detriment of building a long-term stable organization. In fact, while individual members of UDC continued to organize during the 1995 strike, the UDC disbanded itself as an organization right before the strike.

The third critique involved Thomas and the UDC using the antiunion Landrum-Griffin Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) to argue the IAMAW didn’t properly inform workers of their rights. Cloud’s argument is that union democracy doesn’t happen from the top down. While the sentiment for the case is correct, the government doesn’t have the union’s best interests at heart; opening up internal union affairs to government investigating will end up causing more harm than good.

Despite her critiques of Thomas and the UDC, Cloud devotes an entire chapter to a discussion she conducts with Thomas about the lessons to be learned from his organizing at Boeing. Anyone who has attempted to slog through years or decades of union organizing over the last thirty years in the United States will appreciate the honesty and frustration expressed by Thomas.

Unfortunately, the ending isn’t a happy one. None of the rank-and-file organizations exist today. The IAMAW followed up the successful 2008 strike by opening up that contract in 2011, one year before its expiration. In a stunning move, it dropped a National Labor Relations Board charge against Boeing for moving production of its new 787 Dreamliner to a new non-union plant in Charleston, South Carolina. Since then, Boeing announced it would close the Wichita, Kansas plant by the end of 2013, which will affect 2,160 workers. Another two to three thousand machinists in the Puget Sound area could be laid off this year.

The story at Boeing is only one example of a painful reality for many union members in the United States. But our side must learn both the positive and negative lessons. Still the 1995 strike at Boeing was a high point in the class struggle in that decade. Cloud’s book is a must read for anyone who wants to learn from the hard fought lessons of the dissidents in the IAMAW. 

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

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