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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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Boeing makes the future. That’s the recurring message of Boeing’s “Future of Flight” tour, which brings visitors from around the world through its Everett factory in Washington State. The tour begins with a sign announcing that Boeing will “shape the future,” and then carries you through employee elevators encouraging riders to “embrace the future.”

Now Boeing is in a high-profile legal battle with national implications. It’s the latest round in a decades-long labor struggle. At stake: Do workers at Boeing get to shape their own future, and Boeing’s? Or do they just have to embrace—or rather, submit to—the corporation’s plan?

The National Labor Relations Board case against Boeing drew national headlines this summer, and it will again as the case winds through the board’s process and Republicans seize more opportunities to bash President Obama for appointing board members who may actually enforce labor law against employers. Though several media outlets have run with Republican claims that the case is an effort to punish South Carolinians for their state’s right-to-work law, it’s actually about Boeing’s alleged effort to punish its Puget Sound workers for striking by moving work to South Carolina. The NLRB’s General Counsel issued the complaint (roughly comparable to an indictment) after Boeing executives publicly and repeatedly declared that they would be producing a new line of Dreamliner aircraft in South Carolina because Puget Sound workers kept going on strike—four times since 1989. The National Labor Relations Act protects the right of workers to strike without actual or threatened retaliation.

Last month I went to Puget Sound to hear directly from workers there why they’ve chosen time and again to strike.

The International Association of Machinists represents 29,000 workers at Boeing’s Puget Sound plants in Renton, Seattle, and Everett. A dozen of them told me how strikes have allowed them to achieve and sustain their standard of living.

Safety and Sane Scheduling

Workers went on strike in 1989 to win protections for safety and restrictions on overtime. John Jorgenson, who just retired from Boeing after 45 years, is one of six employees in his building who were diagnosed with kidney cancer, which he blames in part on the chemicals they worked with before the 1989 strike. The strike won new protective gear and the elimination of dozens of chemicals judged unsafe.

Jorgenson says excessive overtime is one reason that so many Boeing workers from the pre-1989 period are now divorced, himself included. He remembers working eleven hours a day without a day off for 16 weeks. He would worry about falling asleep at work or while driving home. Brian Pelland, who started work at Boeing in 1988, says he hardly saw his kids in his first year on the job. “You’re always looking at the future,” Pelland says, “and you think you’re always going to have time.” But eventually the mandatory overtime left him feeling “deadbeat” and “numb.” Since the 1989 strike he’s been able to make enough money at Boeing to support his kids, while spending enough time outside of work to be in their lives. Without the strike, he says, “I wouldn’t know them. They wouldn’t know me.”

When I asked Jorgenson what his life would be like without that strike, he said “I’d probably still have to work,” despite the back injuries that put him out on medical leave for the final six months prior to his retirement at age 65. Before he could describe what that would be like, his wife cut him off. “I don’t think so, John. I think with all those chemicals and the stuff you were exposed to … you wouldn’t be here.”

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.”

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.

Different Dreams

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.

And if Boeing does pay a heavy price for telling its employees that their collective action cost them an expansion of their plant, it won’t take a high-priced anti-union consultant to interpret the lesson for other companies: Don’t be so obvious. All too often, employers get away with anti-union retaliation when they don’t go bragging about it in the newspaper.

So whatever the result, the Boeing case is less a story about the potency of current labor law than about the power of the strike on the one hand and the threat of retaliation on the other. It’s the story of workers who have refused to believe that they should cede a hard-won package of middle-class wages and workplace protections in the face of a major company’s multi-year effort to persuade or intimidate them into backing down. Now, after decades during which Puget Sound has been the only place Boeing assembles commercial aircraft, workers are right to recognize that the power to move work elsewhere has become a powerful weapon in management’s arsenal.

Boeing workers expect to have to strike every few years until they retire. One can imagine new attacks from Boeing spurring them to leverage their solidarity in other ways as well, be it international coordination, secondary picketing, or directing their political mobilization (which has successfully helped the company win tax breaks) towards demanding that the U.S. government, a major Boeing customer, insist on better behavior. As Boeing and the Machinists both look to the future, their struggle across decades shows both the enduring power of collective action and the still-unmet challenge that capital mobility poses for the labor movement.

Successive generations of Boeing workers have figured out that it’s better to shape the future than to passively accept it. Meanwhile, Boeing and its peers are working to foist their own dreams on the rest of us—sometimes loudly, often not. My “Future of Flight” tour guide boasted about the ways the Dreamliner represents a new achievement in illusion. Scientific innovations in materials and lighting mean that passengers won’t feel the altitude, the humidity, or the time difference as Boeing’s airplane takes them somewhere new. “By the time you get there,” he said, “we can trick your body to make you think you’ve already been there a long time.” It was easy to forget he was referring to an airplane.

Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. He worked as a union organizer for five years. Check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.
 
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