Battle in Seattle

Boeing and the IAM are locked in a crucial test of wills

THE LATEST strike battle between Boeing, the world’s second-largest maker of commercial airplanes, and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) was nearing the end of its second month when the ISR went to press. At stake is whether one of the world’s most powerful corporations, which has made more than $8.5 billion in profits since the most recent contract was ratified in September 2005, can shove a concessionary contract down the throat of a key manufacturing union.

The IAM represents 27,500 members at Boeing—25,000 in Washington’s Puget Sound region; 1,200 in Portland, Oregon; 700 in Wichita, Kansas; and 70 at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The strike, which began at midnight on September 6, is the seventh strike by the IAM against Boeing and the fourth in the last twenty years—following earlier strikes in 1989, 1995, and 2005.

The machinists are asking for livable wage increases, higher pensions, and increased medical coverage, but the number one issue is limiting outsourcing and solidifying the future membership of the IAM. Boeing’s current proposal would eliminate two thousand jobs relating to material delivery, inventory, and distribution of parts, materials, and equipment.

If the IAM accepted this, it would further accelerate a severe decline in the union’s membership. According to the 31-year Everett crane operator and union activist, Don Grinde, the IAM has seen its national membership drop from approximately 900,000 members in the early 1990s to around 400,000 today. And in the Puget Sound area at Boeing, it’s been cut from around 45,000 to 25,000 in that same period.

Currently, according to TheStreet.com, about 70 percent of the work on Boeing aircrafts today is done by subcontracted employees. Speedups alone cut the number of production workers per plane from 153 in 1990 to just 52 in 2002. In fact, it was Boeing’s insistence on increased outsourcing that led to the collapse of the short-lived two-day return to the negotiation table on October 12 and 13.

At the Everett picket line on October 15, the IAM’s International Aerospace Coordinator and lead negotiator for the union Mark Blondin told the ISR why the negotiations failed on October 13:

…[T]he Boeing Company refused to make a commitment to the very people that have made them successful. They’d rather rely on outside people to come in and mess with the system that our members have perfected and are willing to perfect even more. We are willing to embrace new technology and give new innovations and processes, but the company has to make a commitment that they’ll be here tomorrow. We aren’t going to agree to language that will turn our backs on these people and they are talking about a couple thousand jobs they’d like suppliers to do.

While on the picket line in Everett, Washington, Steve Parsley, a 19-year crane operator, commented on the need to stem the flow of outsourcing:

All across the U.S., this isn’t just about Boeing outsourcing. This is about the U.S. outsourcing. Maybe we can’t stop it at Boeing, but we can sure put a dent in it, and maybe other unions across the U.S. will stand up and say enough is enough.

It’s not just about the almighty dollar. It’s about Boeing controlling its workers, and it’s all about corporate greed all throughout the U.S.—them taking whatever they can take from us.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re union or not. The person working at 7-11, the person working at Home Depot, the person working at Wal-Mart—every single individual needs to stand up and tell our government, “See ya.” Because right now you’ve got millionaires running this country. Millionaires are only going to take care of themselves in the long run.

The stakes in this battle for the IAM—and for the overall labor movement, given the worsening economy and declining union membership, which now stands at 12.6 percent of the population—are extremely high. That’s because, in addition to being the world’s second biggest commercial airplane manufacturer, Boeing is also the Pentagon’s number two military supplier. And according to TheStreet.com, Boeing is the largest employer in Washington state and largest exporter in the United States.

But as powerful as Boeing is, the machinists have the power to take on the company and win. In fact, the IAM arguably has the most leverage it has ever had, thanks to Boeing’s backlog of more than 3,400 aircraft it has orders to build. This eight-year backlog—worth $346 billion in future sales to Boeing—is the biggest in its history. Much of the union’s leverage is due to the backlog of nine hundred orders (worth $155 billion) for the new 787 Dreamliner. According to Business Week, it’s the most anticipated commercial jet in history.

While the machinists struggle to survive on $150-a-week strike pay, they’ve seen the richest Americans make out like bandits with the government’s $700 billion corporate bailout. Fortunately for the machinists, they aren’t alone in this struggle. The highlight of the strike so far was a solidarity rally and barbecue for the machinists, the “Airlines on the Line Day,” on October 9, sponsored by the various unions at Alaska Airlines. More than three hundred machinists and their supporters from a number of unions walked the picket line at Boeing Field in Seattle.

With Boeing wanting to deal the IAM a severe blow, with its increased demands for outsourcing, and with the economy worsening every day, the IAM may have to look back to the rich history of labor struggles in the U.S. for inspiration. Joel Funfar is a 17-year employee at Boeing and a rank-and-file member of the negotiating team for the 18,000 members of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) whose contract with Boeing expires on December 1. At the solidarity rally, he summed up well the direction this struggle may yet take:

I think you have to look back at labor history. Labor in the past, in the ‘30s, in the ‘20s, they went on strike during the depression. They fought for their benefits. If they could do it then, we can do it now. People have to think long term. The companies, corporate America is going to use this economic crisis as an excuse for all kinds of take-aways. And they will never give it back once they take it away. When times get better, they won’t turn around and give you back money.

Issue #93

Summer 2014

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