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Two Boeing strikers on what's at stake:
"A fight against Corporate America"

September 23, 2005 | Page 11

THE OUTCOME of a strike by manufacturing workers at Boeing that began September 2--the first in a decade--will have a far-reaching impact on the U.S. labor movement's efforts to reverse its decline.

The International Association of Machinists (IAM) has seen the number of workers it represents at the company's commercial airplane division slashed from 50,000 in 1989 to about 18,500 today--and the union is battling management' demands for further job cuts and concessions

DON GRINDE, a crane operator at Boeing's Everett, Wash., plant, and DAVID CLAY, a jig builder at the same facility, have worked at the company for 28 years and are members of IAM District 751. They talked to Socialist Worker's DARRIN HOOP about the high stakes in this battle.

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David: In very good times, they decided to take back from the membership. The membership had high expectations of a good contract because we had such a backlog of orders.

The demographics of the membership is such that the majority of the people are 49 years old or older, so they are looking in the next contract or two to retire. It's an outright shame and a travesty that a company this rich treats its workers this poorly when they retire. They offered 10 percent more than what we currently have--$60 per year of service. You can work at the Boeing company for 30 years and end up making--

Don: Just $1,800, and then minus whatever early retirement penalties, minus surviving spouse options. So very few people are going to end up making $1,800 per month.

David: In a very blatant way, they tried to divide the younger workers from the older workers by offering bonuses. We weren't even asking for more money.

Don: We wanted the general wage increase--a GWI--and the productivity pay. Typically, we got 3, 3 and 3 percent GWI [in each year of a three-year contract] or 2.5. We also got a 10 percent signing bonus.

David: And they weren't doing nearly as well as they are now.

Don: The company took that money away from us. They didn't put it into the pensions, where everyone wanted it.

Now, people are pissed. They're not going to take it this time. In the last contract [in 2002], there were rumors going around that you could vote the contract down and not reaffirm the strike vote. I think that's what tipped it in Boeing's favor. We rejected it, and we ended up eating it anyway.

David: This whole pension thing is to draw a line in the sand, given what's happened in the economy with the airlines, General Motors and the other legacy industrial manufacturers.

They're like a B-52 pilot at 50,000 feet, dropping ordnance on the green down below. They don't see what goes on down there. They're just looking at the bottom line. They all sit on each other's board of directors.

Don: They have their own form of solidarity on their boards.

David: And currently, when you retire, you have medical coverage. [Under Boeing' contract proposal], after July of next year, there would be none.

We aren't striking here for ourselves. We're striking for those who come after us.

This is really an unusual event in the 28 years that I've been there. You've had the company be very successful in dividing up the membership. There's a huge solidarity between people who just came back, who were laid off--between the younger workers and the older workers. They're not going to allow [management] to hurt any of us.

Don: That's what will win this. That's what we have to promote.

David: This is a strike over some pretty basic things. It's a fight between Corporate America and the average working person. What should be recognized here is that whatever we succeed in, the community succeeds, too.

There's a solidarity out there over some pretty basic issues. It's over the future--everybody's future--and protecting the past.

Don: They're also dividing us over the Wichita [Kans.] workers.

David: We've had the same contract with the machinists at Boeing in Wichita and Portland [Ore.] for 50-plus years. In this contract, they didn't want to give the same economic package, the same medical package, the same benefits package.

I can remember reading--in blogs and posts on different message boards--the guys from Wichita going, "Those guys from Puget Sound are going to sell us out." Well, guess what? We didn't sell them out.

Don: The Wichita division did get sold already [by Boeing to the Canadian company Onex, costing 11,000 jobs]. We had no say.

David: The 767 was the first airplane that they really started outsourcing the manufacture of the component parts. What you had with the 767 was an airplane that was made in Japan and Italy, and assembled in the U.S.

The Boeing Company has deskilled labor as much as they can, and sent the high-skilled labor overseas. Right now, in Japan, they're building factories in Kobe and Nagoya--big factories to build component parts for that airplane. We aren't doing anything.

In this state, we as taxpayers have to put out $3.2 billion in subsidies to Boeing to build a foreign aircraft that's only going to be assembled in Everett.

They're trying to say that the 767 is an American airplane, and if the Air Force bought Airbus, then it wouldn't be an American airplane. But the fact of the matter is that if you broke it down into component parts and where they are built, the Airbus airplane at this time would have more American content.

I understand the issue that Boeing is an American company, and Airbus is a foreign company. But that's only a matter of convenience for Boeing when they want to sell something. Otherwise, they talk about being a global company.

Don: That's where the company and Corporate America is beating us is in the press. They're beating us because the details of all our stories are not getting out.

David: This issue of job security is huge for machinists union members. We've seen our jobs not only sent offshore, but outside the company, where the company no longer wants to have any [union] hands on the airplane.

Now, when those parts come into the factory, machinists union members are the people who handle them and get them to the mechanics to be assembled. For those people, if this contract is accepted as it is, there would be anywhere from 800 to 1,200 jobs disappeared. We know that internally. But that hasn't been talked about in the mainstream press.

This isn't going to be over 45 days from now. This will be settled next year sometime. The company wants to completely revamp their factories. That's in all ways--not just the manufacturing process, but who works there and what the working conditions are.

What happens to us is important. I don't know what kind of job you do, but whatever you're doing, what happened in 1983 affects what happens to you today. Because if you're in a job that has an entry-level wage, and you have these steps that go up, that happened because the machinists in 1983 accepted that.

If they take away the medical and the pensions [at Boeing], they will take it away from the teachers. Boeing sets the trend for everybody else. That's why it is so important.

Don: This strike is about our membership. The number of rallies at work was unprecedented--and the level of involvement. The cooperation among the stewards and dissidents took everybody coming together at work prior to the strike to pull the membership together.

So that's where my focus is--having barbecues, anything to keep people together, to keep people solid, and to let them know that what they're fighting for is really worthwhile.

I feel like when we went on strike, I got my dignity back. The day that I walked out, I had already won. If we would have not walked out, the union would have been over--or would have continued on a downward slide.

Somehow, we've got to turn America around. Maybe Boeing could be an icon--if we can keep the members together, we can bring some hope to other unions and the working class of America.

Kate Johnson, Mike Carlson and Brooke Winter contributed to this feature.

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