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Negotiations to continue after union halts vote on contract
Where is the fight at Boeing headed?

By Lee Sustar | September 6, 2002 | Page 5

BOEING CO. is one of the world's most powerful corporations. Last year, the company hauled in $2.8 billion in profits on revenues of $58.2 billion. It controls half the world's market for large commercial airliners, and is the number two defense contractor in the U.S.--with billions in profits locked up for years, thanks to fat Pentagon contracts.

But that's not enough for Boeing management. The company has cut its unionized workforce for jetliners in half since 1990--including 30,000 layoffs just since last fall. At the same time, the company moved its headquarters from Seattle to Chicago to signal its new power.

Now, in the latest negotiations with the International Association of Machinists (IAM), Boeing's bosses are out to destroy the power of the union by imposing a contract that would allow even more outsourcing to nonunion contractors.

Management also wants a 1,000 percent increase in family monthly health insurance premiums--from an average of $30 a month to $300. And it wants to keep pensions around their current near-poverty average of just $1,500 a month.

Boeing is out to knock down one of the pillars of the U.S. labor movement--a union that was powerful enough to strike the company and shut it down for 69 days in 1995. But IAM officials did little to prepare members for the August 31 contract deadline.

Union leaders like to call themselves "partners" of Boeing, and they apparently believed that management would come up with an acceptable offer at the last minute. Instead, the company sought to provoke a strike. Management stuck to demands for concessions, trying to use the slump in aircraft orders to starve the 26,000 union members into submission.

As a rank-and-file vote on Boeing's "final" offer was underway August 29, Mark Blondin, president of IAM District 751 in Seattle, announced that a federal mediator had "ordered" the union and management to continue talks in Washington. The ballots would be sealed and the contract extended for 30 days, officials told members.

In fact, the mediator had no legal authority to order talks--and Boeing management hadn't agreed to extend the contract or negotiate. The company went on the offensive, claiming that union leaders were taking away members' right to vote.

In the confusion that followed, IAM members were angry at union leaders for misleading them--and furious at management's attempt to pose as a guardian of union democracy.

IAM leaders have promised a new vote on any contract proposal that results from talks in Washington, set to begin September 3 as Socialist Worker went to press. While it's impossible to predict what comes next, the battle at Boeing shows just how far Corporate America is willing to go to break the unions.

Socialist Worker spoke to two longtime IAM activists at Boeing about their struggle.

"Everything is on the line"

KEITH THOMAS is a veteran activist in IAM Local Lodge 834 and works in Boeing's Wichita, Kan., plant.

THE STAKES for the machinists' union are probably higher than they've ever been. We've been so weakened through concessionary bargaining that everything is on the line--whether the IAM can be an effective labor union.

If this contract goes through, the IAM could continue to exist. But as for delivering to the rank and file, its days would be over.

For the rest of the labor movement, this contract would be a huge defeat. Pattern bargaining has become pattern defeatism. In negotiations, the union kept expecting the old business as usual--to get some concessions at the last minute. But instead, Boeing hung them out to dry.

The IAM has its own lean manufacturing program--High Performance Work Organization (HPWO). This is nothing new. It's piecework. At the last convention, the IAM removed the ban on piecework in its constitution.

The HPWO gives IAM officials jobs that put them into the position of Boeing management. They also get jobs through a health and safety institute and a quality-through-training program. The company is trying to use the opportunity to increase its domination of the IAM.

Throughout the last couple of months, people were saying that these were the lamest negotiations that we've ever seen. There were a lot of questions, but there weren't a lot of IAM reps on the floor to take them on. They didn't want to work up a strong "no" vote.

Like I said during the 1995 strike, they didn't know what to do with victory. They snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, because in two contracts, they couldn't stop outsourcing.

"We need to draw a line in the sand"

DON GRINDE has worked at Boeing for 25 years. He's a crane operator at Boeing's Everett, Wash., plant outside of Seattle and a longtime rank-and-file activist in IAM District 751.

THE BIG issue is the survival of our union. This isn't just about the survival of the IAM in Seattle. This is precedent setting for aerospace across the nation. If they kick us, and they win this thing, aerospace is going to fall across the U.S.

Pensions within the IAM--and not just at Boeing--aren't sufficient to maintain a really decent standard of living. Boeing wants a one-night-stand relationship. They'll try to bribe employees with more money--then fire them tomorrow. If they get sucked into a pension increase, they know that they're tied to these employees until the day they die. That's why they're going to the death on this contract.

Boeing claims that the union tainted the election process. All of a sudden, Boeing is concerned about the members' democratic rights, which is an absolute joke. It's purposely and coldly calculated to deceive the public, the community and the employees.

Boeing has a whole book of acronyms and terms that they use to invoke images of family and solidarity and teamwork, but in fact, they mean just the opposite. For example, Boeing will say they want to grow the company. For the executives, it means we're going to offload union members' jobs--lay them off, send their work overseas, try to find cheaper suppliers.

"Working together" means "you're going to do it our way, or we're going to fire your ass." Boeing wants to allow subcontractors to come in and work alongside machinists. If we let that happen all our jobs will be subject to offloading. It would gut our seniority and job rights.

The entire labor movement is watching this. If we go down, we're kicking the stool out from under the other unions. Any time a major union takes a concession, they weaken the union next to them. We need to draw a line in the sand.

The problem is that we've drawn a line in the sand, and Boeing has thrown the sand back in our face. I think the re-vote [on the contract proposal] is a good idea because peoples' votes were tainted by the mediator's letter.

The company is pushing the vote. They want it right now. The odds are that every hour that goes by gives us a chance to mobilize. It gives us a chance to get new information out. It gives us a chance to convert the "yes" votes into "no" votes and to launch a strike against the company. Boeing is scared by that.

I think that the rank and file needs to get out on the shop floor as soon as possible and utilize every minute, every second we have, to go out and communicate with members.

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