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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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Pelland says if he had crossed the picket line, “a part of me would have died, and I wouldn’t be who I am.” Having been guided through the 1989 strike by the veterans, by the time of the 2008 strike Pelland was seeking out newer employees on the picket line. “Can I talk to you about how the company bluffs?” he would ask them. “We hold a straight flush and the company’s always bluffing.”

Several workers mentioned they were struck by the degree of support from the community. Twenty-five-year employee Diana Loggins was moved in 1989 when her mailman, seeing the strike stickers on her car, would say, “Hang in there, you’re on strike for us.” Jorgenson says Boeing provides most of the middle-class jobs in Puget Sound. Boeing workers make significant contributions to the local tax base and the demand for local businesses. The other major private employer in the area is Microsoft, whose educational requirements leave its jobs out of reach for many.

A History of Retaliation

None of the dozen workers I met with doubted that Boeing was retaliating for Puget Sound strikes by locating production of its new Dreamliner line in South Carolina. For these workers, threats to shift production are more of the same. What’s new is that this time, Boeing is actually making good on its threat to build commercial airplanes outside of Puget Sound.

Several workers said they’ve heard managers threaten to shut down or transfer production during past contract fights. Pelland says prior to “every strike” he’s heard managers threaten to move lines of airplanes out of state. He says friends of his in management told him they were specifically instructed to warn workers that “they could take their business somewhere else.” Merritt says co-workers informed him that managers told them, “We’re pretty sick of this—you keep striking, we’ll move your jobs.”

During the 2002 contract fight, Jorgenson was pulled into a meeting where managers tried to convince him and other shop stewards to support the company’s offer. Jorgenson says a manager told them that if the workers voted to strike, a Sonic Cruiser line planned for Everett would be built somewhere else instead. Jorgenson and other stewards did their best anyway to round up the two-thirds support the union requires to authorize a strike. But with the airline industry still recovering from 9/11, they fell just short. That meant management’s final offer was accepted, including weakened subcontracting protections and language that prevented the union from filing charges over past threats. Fifteen-year employee Paul Veltkamp thinks that after managers “managed to scare just enough people” to vote against striking in 2002, they convinced themselves they were “vote-counting wizards” who could get workers to agree to more concessions in subsequent contracts. But after Boeing lost the 2005 and 2008 strikes, says Veltkamp, now the company is “trying something else, a different kind of threat.”

Some workers said their co-workers have been intimidated by managers telling reporters that Boeing denied Puget Sound the second line of airliners because of strikes. Veltkamp, a shop steward, says he was approached by employees holding up newspapers and telling him that in the 2012 contract negotiations “we’re just going to have to give them what they want.” However, he says, “We don’t stay scared for long.”

Boeing spokesperson Healy said the lesson Puget Sound employees should take from the choice of South Carolina is that “we need to be competitive,” and added that Boeing would “talk to our unionized employees here” about paying a greater share of health care costs in their next contract.

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