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'What's the Point of a Labor Union?

Boeing machinists narrowly spprove end to pensions

Corporate America beat us, by a hair: on a 51 percent to 49 percent vote, Boeing’s concessionary contract was approved Friday.Boeing Machinists were nearly evenly divided on how to respond to the company's job blackmail. (Photo: Jim Levitt)

It passed by about 600 votes, in a much smaller turnout than the vote back in November.

Less than 100 people were in the room for the vote-count announcement, in stark contrast to other times we’ve voted on a contract. The few hardy souls who came to the main Seattle hall of Machinists (IAM) District Lodge 751 seemed stunned when the results were read. Only one or two shouted anything, and within a minute the room was empty. It all ended with barely a whimper.

But the effects will be profound. Besides losing the defined-benefit pension(current employees will continue to accrue service time until September 2016, at which time the plan will be frozen; new hires will get only a 401(k)), we’ve lost collective bargaining, for all intents and purposes.

Two times now, in a three-year period, Boeing has come after us for concessions while we still had a year (in 2011) or three years (2013) left on our contract. Both times, the company has used the threat of moving the next generation of a given airplane program (737 in 2011, 777X in 2013) if we didn’t comply.

Because we are under contract, we had no strike weapon to provide leverage.

This new contract will be in place until 2024. Boeing will be looking to revamp at least a couple of other airplane programs before then… guaranteeing that the company will be back for another bite of the apple.

“Take It or We Leave” is the new modus operandi.

At this point 47 percent of the IAM workforce at Boeing is 50 or older. Many of those workers will retire in the next decade. By the time 2024 rolls around, a distinct majority of the union membership will have no experience of a “normal” contract negotiation, or of a strike.

The question is already being raised by members: What is the union for? What’s the point?

Mood Was Grim

The atmosphere in Everett, where 17,000 union members work, was very strange on voting day. 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. (It was tame by Midwest standards, but we specialize in a damp cold out here.) I’m astonished there wasn’t an explosion. Almost everyone just put up with it.

Very few signs, no chanting, no nothing. And it was impossible to “read” the mood.

When I got to the union headquarters in Seattle, the staff was as uncertain as I was. While we were waiting for the count in Everett to finish, we heard that the count in Auburn had favored passage. Auburn is where the Fabrication Division has its largest plant, with many older workers, including a large proportion of skilled machinists. These have traditionally been strong supporters of strikes.

But what I heard was that many of these guys figured that even if we rejected the contract now, Boeing was going to crunch us on the pension in 2016. So why not take the $10,000 bonus, and the boost in the monthly pension payout to $95/month per year of service that goes into effect in September 2016?

Finally, at 10 pm, District Lodge President Tom Wroblewski came into the hall to announce the results. Union spokespeople took no questions after reading the very short statement.

The union didn’t release an official vote count, but the Seattle Times reported there were about 23,900 votes altogether. Turnout was lower than November in part because this time the International deliberately scheduled the vote when many members, especially long-timers, would still be away on holiday vacations.

Will ‘Boeing Effect’ Spread?

Boeing’s pressure and threats of the last month, aided by nearly all Washington state politicians and the media, clearly got to the membership. The public framework of the debate assumed that since workers elsewhere have been losing (pensions specifically, but wages as well), therefore Boeing workers should as well.

We were expected to sacrifice for the “greater good” of the region. Boeing’s extortion of the state, and of the union membership, was seen as business as usual. This was echoed in the statements of IAM International President Thomas Buffenbarger. Our efforts to defend our contract were completely undercut by the International.

Despite the verbiage in the most current edition of the IAM’s publication, touting the importance of defined-benefit pensions, there is no way the IAM will be able to protect pensions anywhere.

The spillover effect on the rest of organized labor is obvious. The IAM workforce at Boeing is the largest unit in the IAM, and one of the last industrial unions with a defined-benefit pension.

I expect the rest of corporate America to mimic Boeing’s tactics. Why wait until a contract is expiring? Just tell the union that it has to make concessions, or we’ll do x, y, or z—and it has to be done now, not when you will have the ability to strike.

Much of this echoes the concessionary bargaining that wrecked the auto workers and others. The difference here is that Boeing is immensely profitable.

In 2013 the company enjoyed record output, record profits, and a record stock price—up 80 percent. Plus, in November Washington state handed Boeing a package of tax breaks worth $8.7 billion, the largest any state has ever given a single corporation. Being told we had to sacrifice at the very same time Boeing handed out a $10 billion stock buyback and a 50 percent increase in the dividend (worth another $2 billion) only emphasized the unfairness of it all.

Oust Machinists President?

“Let’s put this vote behind us and go forward in solidarity,” wrote Wilson Ferguson, president of Local A (the largest local within District Lodge 751) and a strong proponent of a “no” vote both times, online. His statement was shared in a public Facebook group where members were discussing the deal. Ferguson wrote:

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 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. Maybe folks on the GUAV page [a “vote yes” Facebook page] are right that pensions are a thing of the past but it would have been nice to have had a good faith negotiation on the matter.

So while you may be happy that we accepted the deal, please dont confuse a victory with the loss of something that folks fought, bled and sometimes died to win.

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