How Strikes at Boeing Became the Center of a Major Political Fight Over Jobs, Unions
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Machinists Union members at Boeing are defending a dream too few American workers have in place or see in reach: Work hard, and don’t live paycheck to paycheck. Get sick, and don’t worry whether you can afford a doctor’s visit. Put in enough decades, and expect a comfortable retirement. They didn’t just win that dream through the beneficence of their bosses or the worthiness of their work (though the particulars of the industry make strikers less vulnerable to permanent replacement). It was birthed and maintained through strikes. Four times over the past 22 years, they held together and outlasted the company.
Dave Swann proudly relates that his great-grandfather was a porter, “one of the highest-paid jobs an African-American could have back in those days … Everybody came to their house to eat, because he was in the union and they made good money.” His grandfather was a longshoreman and his father, like him, was a Machinists member at Boeing. “I feel threatened,” he says, because if his sons can’t land their dream jobs of moviemaker and sportscaster, he wants union jobs at Boeing to be there for their whole lives. “It’s a hurting feeling, because you want to see your kids do better than you.”
Boeing has its own dreams. Take its tour and you’ll hear about a future of faster, smoother production. When all the pieces are in place, my tour guide said, parts will arrive from several sources and become a Dreamliner in three days. “Most of the people who will ride on this plane,” a pre-tour video brags, “haven’t been born yet.”
Bob Merritt describes the attitude he gets now from the company: “We want our airplanes to be plug and play, we want our workers to be plug and play.” Pelland says Boeing is trying to become “a Lego building company” more focused on assembling parts than creating them. “They’re sending a message to their customers and their shareholders that they’re done with us,” said Redrup. He says Boeing is trying “to break our stranglehold on their production system” just as General Motors did to the UAW half a century ago. “They’ve got to deal with the workers, and they don’t like that. If they can’t housebreak us, they gotta find a way to get away from us.”
Now Boeing is at the center of a national controversy over how robust the right to strike should be. The workers I spoke to were divided over whether the company had arrogantly stumbled into legal danger or intentionally set out to see what they could get away with. It’s good to see that, under the Obama-era labor board, publicly declaring you are denying production of a line of airplanes to a group of workers because they keep going on strike at least earns you a labor board complaint (Obama has been at pains to keep his distance from the case).
Reached by phone, Boeing government operations spokesperson Tim Neale maintained that management has “been honest about the fact that strikes have harmed the company and that we as a company very much are looking for production stability,” but insisted Boeing hasn’t broken the law. Its Republican defenders claim that the complaint signifies a shift toward Soviet-style central planning or Chicago-style machinations. But it’s the prospect of an acquittal—or a management-friendly settlement—that would signal a further departure from the stated purpose and promise of the National Labor Relations Act, which set forth as its intent the promotion of collective bargaining and enshrined a right to collective action without threat of retaliation.