By ANN MONTAGUE (with commentary by EDUARDO QUINTANA)
In November, the International Association Of Machinists (IAM) District Lodge 751 showed the labor movement what a fightback looks like. The machinists organized, rallied, and received solidarity for their struggle against Boeing from unions throughout the Seattle area. Boeing wanted major concessions in the midst of their current contract and used threats to leave Washington and build the 777X in another state.
Boeing’s demands for big concessions on pension and health benefits started only days after Washington’s Democratic Governor Jay Inslee signed the biggest state tax break in history into law—a package that will give Boeing up to $8.7 billion in benefits through 2040.
The union called their bluff and rejected Boeing’s proposal 67% to 33%. Union members across the country took heart in the machinists’ victory. They are a union that has gone on strike five times, and Boeing was now coercing their members to accept concessions that included ending their defined benefit pensions. Since the current contract had not yet elapsed when this threat took place, the workers could not legally strike.
After the machinists had rejected the concessions, Boeing commenced a high-profile cross-country jaunt, meeting with local politicians in other states concerning deals to move operations to their areas. Armed with a renewed threat to relocate, they then came back to Seattle with another proposal for the machinists. The local leadership rejected the new offer, stating that it was not substantially different than the one they had just rejected. Thomas Wroblewski, president of Machinists Union District Lodge 751, said, “Because of the massive takeaways, the union is adamantly recommending members reject this offer.”
District 751’s leaders opposed Boeing’s demand that the machinists approve a deal that would freeze their pensions in favor of less generous, riskier 401(k) plans, and eliminate pensions for new hires. These leaders also voiced dismay that the deal would increase out-of-pocket health spending (by as much as $4000 over 2011 levels over the life of the contract), and that it would include raises of merely 1 percent every other year.
But in December, the IAM International leadership stepped in and forced the local to hold another vote. They scheduled the vote for Friday, Jan. 3, before many members had returned from vacations during the holiday plant shutdown. Many machinists also say they were not being given enough time to study and discuss the revised proposal. The new vote was announced four days before Christmas. It passed 51% to 49%. The revised contract will ban workers from striking until 2024. To sweeten the taste of the concessions they demanded, the company will give each worker a “bonus” of $10,000 later this month, and another $5000 in 2020.
Jim Levitt, a 35-year machinist at Boeing, described the voting procedure in Everett, Wash., the location of the largest airplane assembly plant in the world: “Members needed an eligibility card, sent to them by mail, to obtain a ballot to vote on the contract. A huge number did not receive the card in time. They thus needed to obtain a ‘good standing’ card, requiring a stop at the front desk in the union hall. Problem: only two or three office employees were available at the Everett hall. There are only two or three computers for them to use to check the necessary rosters in any case. Result: thousands of union members spent two hours or more waiting in line out in the cold outside the union hall. I’m astonished there wasn’t an explosion.”
Jim Bearden, a spokesperson for IAM District Lodge 751, told the media that Boeing production workers “faced tremendous pressure from every source imaginable. The politicians and the media, and others, who truly didn’t have a right to get into our business, were aligned against us and did their best to influence our folks’ votes.”
Connie Kelliher, the IAM District 751 director of communications, commented that one-third of the workers were on vacation when the vote was called. Many members were still on vacation the day of the vote. Less than half the members voted, and many are calling for a revote or a recount.
She noted that by forcing a second vote the International gave Boeing time to start their campaign against the machinists. Starting from November, after the first vote was taken, they did a major campaign including round-the-clock radio ads telling machinists they would lose their jobs and be responsible for the financial ruin for the state.
Thousands of flyers flooded the factories in the days right before the vote. And because there is a contract in place for the next two years, the right to strike was taken away if there was a “no” vote. “We did not have that weapon,” Kelliher stated.
The request for the revote has to go to the International to decide, and they are the ones who chose the date in the first place.
Boeing executives chose to remain silent the day after the Machinists’ vote. But the Seattle Times stated that the top officials from the IAM National Headquarters who were in Gov. Jay Inslee’s office were “almost giddy.” “It’s going to be sunny in Seattle for another 40 or 50 years,” gushed Rich Michalski, who represented the International Association of Machinists (IAM) national headquarters in the 777X negotiations.
“Boeing is going to be here forever now. It’s all about being able to compete with the rest of the world,” he added, sounding just like a Boeing executive.
Local aerospace analyst Scott Hamilton says that though the 777X deal puts this state in a better position to win the work of building future Boeing airplanes, it’s “hyperbole” to talk about guaranteeing future work. When the jet-maker launches its next new airplanes, likely a 757 replacement around 2019 or a 737 replacement around 2020, “Boeing will take us through this all over again,” he said.
“Boeing will come back to the unions and say, ‘Give us more concessions,’ ” Hamilton said. “It will come back to the state and say, ‘Give us more tax breaks.’
Wilson Ferguson, president of Local A (the largest local within District Lodge 751), stated in a message to his members, “There is a lot of talk of pulling out of the International, that is a self-defeating proposition. Our best strategy is to remove Buffy (IAM President Tom Buffenbarger) from office. That campaign starts today. The loss of our pension is a big blow. Not only to us but to workers across the country.” The new system places more of the risk of retirement security on the workers, leaving the company largely risk-free. It will match employee contributions up to a certain level, but there’s no guarantee that it won’t seek to cut that commitment in the future.
John Kleiboeker, a Boeing worker of 16 years and the president of the Machinists local Lodge 63 told The Oregonian, “I’ve got 15 years to retirement and I am looking at a loss of $250,000”.
There will also be a loss to the white-collar workers at Boeing, organized in the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA). Those 21,000 local members will clearly be next in line to have their pensions frozen when the union’s contract expires in 2016. Weakening Boeing’s strongest union will make SPEEA’s position much weaker.
Perhaps the most shocking concession of all—given the claims of politicians and IAM officials that this offer had to be accepted to preserve jobs building the 777X—is contract language that allows Boeing to outsource union work. It reads: “Boeing may contract or outsource certain 777X wing fabrication and assembly work packages in whole or part.”
This contract creates a new “normal.” Why wait until a contract is expiring? Just tell the union that it has to make concessions, and that it has to be done now, not during contract negotiations, in order to eliminate the right to strike.
Clearly, the anger against the International’s role in this travesty is boiling over. Jay Cronk and Karen Asuncion are running a reform campaign that calls for: Reducing the size and salaries of the Executive Council (Buffenbarger’s 2012 salary was $304,114, and nine other IAM International employees were paid more than $265,000), holding union elections every four years, ending practices of nepotism and cronyism in the union, and stopping spending on luxury items like $1 million a year to maintain the union’s Lear jet, among other proposals. For their complete platform, see IAMreform.org.
These are important reforms but hopefully after the Boeing defeat they will expand their platform to include new strategies that will be based in a class-struggle perspective that would have said to Boeing officials: You can’t escape us! If you flee to South Carolina or Alabama, we’ll follow you there, organize the workers, and make your corporate lives a living hell!
Boeing and the Machinists’ Union, Disappointed but Not Surprised…
By EDUARDO QUINTANA
How could it be otherwise? Reopened contract? One week to vote? Election forced on them by the International, spearheaded by a retired (not accountable to future elections, former vice-president of the IAM). Boom. Politicians pressuring, pension stealing, health costs rising, eight-year concessionary contract accepted.
Giving up pensions for new hires means no one will have them in the future. It is also part of the relentless attack on unions that has been going on since Reagan’s destruction of PATCO in 1981. It is union busting on the installment plan, with a long-term perspective that will never stop. It is part of the plan to pauperize the entire working class and turn the clock back to the time of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and debtors’ prisons.
It is corporations and their government using the same divide-and-conquer strategy that pits worker against worker, union member against union member, local unions against international, region against region, young against old, Black against White or White against Brown (Arizona’s SB 1070), the future against the present, right-to-work states against closed shop, Washington against Utah, Texas, and South Carolina.
Unions, including my local, have been reeling from this strategy for years, most years, accepting concessions because of strategies that promote meek collaboration instead of courageous fight-back. On the shop floor it is “look out for yourself” individualistic self-interest instead of collective self-defense of all members. It is business unionism (you elected us to lead, go away and let us lead) instead of reliance on our collective strength. In the political arena, our strategy means accepting a so-called compromise between Democrats (supposedly pro-worker) and Republicans (pro-corporate) where working people lose every time.
These types of concessionary contracts and losses will continue until unions reject individualistic self-interest, build independent political action and embrace solidarity of the entire working class.
“Workers of the world awaken. Break your chains, demand your rights. All the wealth you make is taken, by exploiting parasites. Shall you kneel in deep submission from your cradle to your grave? Is the height of your ambition to be a good and willing slave?”—Joe Hill
The assault on us, the working people, will never end until we end it.
Eduardo Quintana is a retired former president of IAM Local Lodge 933, Tucson, Ariz.
Photo: Christian Science Monitor