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Battle for "survival" looming at Boeing

By Darrin Hoop | August 30, 2002 | Page 12

SOME 26,000 machinists at the aircraft maker Boeing are in a high-stakes battle for job security, health care and decent pensions as their union contract expires September 1. The contract covers members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) in Wichita, Kan., Portland, Ore. and the Puget Sound area of Washington state.

As the current three-year deal comes to an end, the IAM is under pressure to win a strong contract after a 98 percent vote to authorize a strike. Boeing officials have threatened to shut down production for up to six months if the machinists walk out.

Boeing has offered a bonus instead of a raise in the first year and a 2.5 percent hike in the second and third years. But the company is demanding an increase in family health care costs--from about $30 to $300 a month--that will wipe out wage gains.

What's more, Boeing has slashed the number of IAM jobs in commercial aircraft production by half since 1990--with more slated to go as part of 30,000 layoffs announced last year. "This is a fight for survival," said IAM Vice President Bob Thayer, who heads the union's negotiations.

Some 500 IAM members and supporters rallied at SeaTac airport near Seattle August 25. The rally followed an unofficial lunchtime protest four days earlier at Boeing's Everett, Wash., plant. That action was organized by rank-and-file activists who are bitter over the IAM's failure to enforce previous job security clauses won in 1999 and--following a 69-day strike--in 1995.

"The union has been talking about job security for 20 years," said Don Grinde, a 25-year employee and shop steward at the Everett facility. "We're tired of it. In the last contract, we supposedly got job security. They said it was solid language. Critics like me said it was full of holes. Boeing will fight to the death over job security. They want free reign to eliminate whatever they want. They'll try to give us token language that will pacify the members."

Keith Thomas, a longtime IAM activist in Local Lodge 834 in Wichita, agreed. "Boeing has managed to convince the membership that job security can't be negotiated," he told Socialist Worker. "And the IAM has essentially admitted that it has been unable to enforce the contract."

The problem, Thomas said, was the IAM's approach to "partnership" with the company. This has created a layer of full-time union officials more concerned with a "high-performance workplace organization" than union rights. "The IAM says it's in partnership with Boeing," Thomas said. "But Boeing ignores that. So the IAM is its own victim."

Many of the jobs eliminated by Boeing have gone to nonunion contractors and overseas operations, while speedups have cut the number of production workers per plane from 153 in 1990 to just 52 today. Now Boeing wants to bring nonunion subcontractors into the plants to work alongside IAM members. "My department produces parts that are higher quality and less expensive than anywhere else, but they outsource our work anyway," Thomas said.

With the average age of machinists at 47, pensions have emerged as a key issue. Machinists with 30 years of service could retire at age of 65 and receive a benefit of just $1,500 a month. IAM leaders--under pressure from rank-and-file activists like Grinde--are demanding a big increase to $3,600 per month.

But even that would leave the machinist pensions lower than several other unions at Boeing. For example, members of the Ironworkers, Western Metal Trades and Operating Engineers unions receive between $5,000 and $6,000.

Boeing clearly has the money to fund decent retirements. Despite the drop in jet orders, Boeing's pension fund has an excess of $3 billion, and the company made $2.8 billion in 2001 on revenues of $58.2 billion.

But for the family of Bob Waldemer, the fight for a strong IAM pension is too little, too late. At the age of 57, and with 23 years of service for Boeing, Bob had hoped to retire by now. But he couldn't afford to--despite the fact that he battled a couple different tumors in the last 20 years. When he died last week, he left behind a wife and two kids.

"This is just one story," Grinde told Socialist Worker. "We have guys pushing 70 who are still working. This is corporate terrorism. They've put 30,000 in unemployment. How many commit suicide, get sick? No one talks about that damage."

As Socialist Worker went to press, management was refusing to budge--and the IAM had responded by requesting a federal mediator to oversee the process, the earliest one that has ever been used.

Boeing's other main union, the 18,000-member Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) pledged to support the IAM. SPEEA--which walked out for 40 days in 2000--doesn't have contract language allowing it to honor IAM picket lines. But IAM members "can count on us to stand with them in any way we can," SPEEA spokesperson Bill Dugovich said. "They offered us immense support during our strike, and we were immensely grateful."

Boeing will present its final offer August 27, and the union has scheduled a vote on the deal two days later. The outcome of the battle at Boeing will have a major impact on the entire labor movement. "Minimum, a strike will cost Boeing $2 billion," Local 834 member Keith Thomas wrote in a plant leaflet. "If Boeing executives want a strike, BRING IT ON!"

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