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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.

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.”

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