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How Strikes at Boeing Became the Center of a Major Political Fight Over Jobs, Unions

When Boeing tried to move production to South Carolina from Washington to avoid union workers, the NLRB stepped in and called it union-busting--and the GOP got mad.

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Defending Their Dream

Though workers have won additional improvements over the past two decades, the dozen employees I spoke to all described the strikes since 1989 primarily as defensive actions aimed at simply maintaining what had been won before. That includes robust pensions and an affordable family health care plan for workers and retirees.

(Reached by phone, Boeing labor relations spokesperson Tim Healy said that both sides share responsibility for the frequency of strikes.)

The Boeing medical coverage pays for prescription medicine for 15-year employee Jason Redrup’s stepson, who’s had a liver transplant. Without Boeing benefits, Redrup said, “It would bankrupt me.” Then he paused, contemplating what would happen next. “He’d be dead.”

Bob Merritt, a 32-year employee, described rushing his daughter to the emergency room after she collapsed on the volleyball court. As he drove, he watched her fingers ball up as she lay in a fetal position in the back seat. “Talk about scared,” he says. “We got her in [the ER] and I flashed my health card—damn right I got that insurance.” He questioned whether his daughter, who fully recovered, would have gotten adequate treatment if she hadn’t had adequate insurance. “There goes your whole life.”

The strikes have also given workers confidence that their contract can be enforced. Pelland believes that without the credibility the union has established through striking, Boeing would have found an excuse to fire him. Twenty years ago, working under pressure on a wing line, Pelland slipped on leaking oil and badly sprained his thumb. His doctor sent him back to work with instructions not to grasp with his right hand for two weeks. With a mix of anger and embarrassment, he described his manager announcing at a morning crew meeting, “Oh Brian, he’s got some pussy restriction—he can’t do his job.” “That changed me for life,” said Pelland. Without strikes, he said, “they’d throw me away,” and the union would lack the clout to stop them.

Dave Swann, who was hired in 1989, says the contract language and clout won through the strikes created opportunities for him to advance at Boeing despite management racism. Growing up, Swann was one of three or four African-American students bussed into a majority white school district in West Seattle. For years before the recent strikes won a new promotions system, managers looked at him “like I was a ghost.”

A Changed Membership

The strikes were transformative experiences. For Jorgenson, the scariest was in 1977, when he was recently married to his first wife and making house payments. He says he went into the strike unsure “whether I’m going to have a job or not.” He remembers managers swerving their cars towards picketing strikers on their way into work, and then taking photos of picketers from inside the plant.

Jorgenson joined a group calling itself the “Everett Raiders” that worked to discourage replacement workers and keep the spirits of the other strikers up. He compared going through a strike together to going through a war. “You’re not really going to desert each other, and you’re a lot more willing to endure the pain of going through all of it. And it is painful.” The percentage of the workforce on strike went up during the course of the strike rather than down. By the end, he felt “pretty powerful,” and when he went back to work, co-workers told him he had helped give them the strength to stay out on strike.

Wilson “Fergie” Ferguson, a military veteran who plays Santa at union Christmas parties, says going on strike for the first time in 1977 “scared the shit out of me.” But “anger trumps fear every time. I’m scared until you piss me off.”

 
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