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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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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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