We need a rank-and-file opposition at Boeing

February 11, 2014

Reform candidates challenging the incumbent leadership of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) have won enough endorsements from IAM lodges to force the first contested election for International officers in more than 50 years. This comes on the heels of a bitter blow for IAM members at Boeing in the Puget Sound region, after the International forced a vote on a company proposal for a concessionary contract extension, and the deal passed by a very slim margin in early January.

Last year, the Labor Department investigated the IAM and determined that the International had violated election procedures in ways that stifled any challenge to the International leadership. In the re-run that began last month, a group of opposition candidates, led by Jay Cronk running for IAM president against incumbent R. Thomas Buffenbarger, had to win the endorsement of 25 IAM lodges to be nominated. The opposition got part of the way to that total last month, and voting in some 85 lodges in early February put them over the top. The re-run general election will take place in April.

Anger with the International flared with the disastrous contract passed at Boeing at the start of January. In November, members of IAM District 751 in the Puget Sound region overwhelmingly rejected Boeing's demand for an eight-year extension of an agreement that wasn't due to expire in 2016. Boeing insisted on drastic concessions, including the future elimination of union members' defined-benefit pension plan, increased employee contributions for health care coverage, a freeze on entry-level pay for the next dozen years, and language that allows for the outsourcing of union work.

After the first contract rejection, Boeing stepped up its campaign of blackmail, threatening to move production of its new 777X airliner unless IAM caved to the demands for concessions. The company got ready support from the corporate media around Seattle and its political servants, led by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who got the state legislature to hand out to Boeing the largest corporate tax subsidy ever granted by a state government.

Then the IAM International joined in, demanding another vote on a barely changed proposal from Boeing. The contract vote was set for January 3 at the end of a holiday break for Boeing workers, when many members were still out of town. Amid the blackmail and betrayal, the contract passed by a razor-thin margin of 51 to 49 percent.

Shannon Ryker is a founder of a new rank-and-file caucus, "Rosie's Machinists 751," IAM District 751, which began to form in December to oppose the concessions contract. The caucus is supporting the opposition candidates in the election re-run, and looking ahead to building the power of rank-and-file members so they can resist Boeing's attacks next time. After a February 5 picket of Gov. Inslee to protest his part in spearheading the "yes" campaign on concessions, Ryker talked to Steve Leigh about what lies ahead.

WHAT ARE things like at Boeing after the vote?

THERE'S A lot of apathy, but there is also a group of people that is angry.

There's a higher rate of absenteeism at work. Boeing recently held an event for the 12th Man [an organization for Seattle Seahawks football fans], and only a thousand workers out of 19,000 on the day shift showed up. This shows how low morale is. People don't want to participate in company-sponsored events.

Even the people who voted "yes" on the contract mainly voted that way because they thought it was the only way to save their jobs. They are not happy about the content of the contract.

HOW IS Rosie's Machinists 751 going?

IT'S GOING very well! The Facebook page was just the beginning--I'm currently working with a web designer on Rosie's Machinists website. Don Grinde, a Rosie member, recently finished our new logo, and we have a lot of requests for Rosie's T-shirts.

We've had four meetings so far. We'll have a regular newsletter. We're asking members to send us content suggestions for the newsletter.

Boeing machinists march to their union hall to vote on the company's final contract offer
Boeing machinists march to their union hall to vote on the company's final contract offer (Robert Sorbo | Reuters)

The purpose is to establish a community of support for union members. We want to have a strong network in place--we need to be prepared the next time we're faced with threats, ultimatums and public pressure. We need to have a response plan established, so when they try something like this again, we'll have support. Rosie's Machinists was established too late to be effective this time. We want to make sure that doesn't happen again.

Our ultimate goal is to create a multi-organizational caucus. We want to work closely with other unions and organizations, especially in the Puget Sound region, to strengthen the bargaining power of all unions.

We're receiving a lot of interest and support from other unions, as well as social and political organizations--from Teamsters Local 117 and the rank-and-file caucus in Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587; from Democrats who think that Jay Inslee has given them a bad name; from Mike LaPointe, an independent candidate for Congress and three or four socialist groups. All have expressed interest in helping to see our organization succeeds.

WHY DID Rosie's Machinists 751 decide to picket Gov. Jay Inslee on February 5?

WE PICKETED him because of his involvement in the "yes" campaign on the concessionary contract. He was supporting Boeing. This was a direct violation of his relationship with the IAM. As a Democratic governor, he was expected to uphold the professed values of the Democratic Party. He violated his oath and sided with the corporate entity, rather than working-class people.

CONSIDERING THE role of the Republicans and Democrats in forcing through this bad contract, what do you think of the two-party system?

I'VE NEVER been a fan of the two-party system. Why do we have to adopt the values of one or the other party? We should look for candidates that uphold the best values of both.

The Democrats are a corporate party at this point. They have shown that they support the corporations, not the working people--not the people that they are supposed to serve. We need to look outside the two-party system, whether that be parties of workers and unions, or independents, or socialists. It's time to look outside.

Other workers are thinking the same way. Many people are saying, "The Democrats are throwing us under the bus." They are considering not voting Democratic in the next election. We have asked the union leaders to pull their endorsement from any politician who supported Boeing in this fight. District 751 has already pulled its endorsement from Rick Larsen [the member of Congress from the district near Everett, Wash.]

WHAT CHANGES would you like to see in the union?

THERE ARE so many issues that need addressed. Right now, we have a division in our membership that needs to be repaired. People are upset with the lack of communication we experienced during the last two votes, and now the International elections. There are a lot of very restrictive rules in place that prevent us from being effective as a membership.

We'd like to see changes to the by-laws. The by-laws now keep members from participating. A lot of those restrictions are in place to keep the membership from having a democratic say, and they only help the International to maintain power. As we just experienced in the January 3 vote, that can have very negative affects on our membership.

We need to reform the election process. As it stands now, our membership receives very little communication about the process--it's basically rigged to keep the current leadership in power.

On February 8, we have the opportunity to change that by casting a vote for the reform slate. After finding Tom Buffenbarger guilty of elections violations, the Labor Department stepped in to order a new election. For the first time in 52 years, we have a chance to reform our union with a fair and democratic voting process.

There is a lack of communication and education for stewards and members. We need to improve the process of how we educate our membership. We need to see our business reps on the shop floor on a regular basis talking to and educating members. Ultimately, if we can improve our education and communication, we can improve our solidarity and create a stronger union and community.

HOW WELL known is the caucus?

ROSIE'S MEMBERS have been actively spreading the word and inviting people to our Facebook page. I made a formal announcement regarding the formation of the caucus recently. At the end of January, we had approximately 30 people show up to our meeting, and many more who expressed interest in attending.

We have lots of support from rank-and-file members and from the candidates running in opposition to the national leaders of the union, such as Jay Cronk, the candidate for President, and Jason Redrup and Sande Lien, candidates for vice president. District 751 is fully aware of our existence, as is the IAM international.

DOES THE caucus support these opposition candidates?

ABSOLUTELY! I was skeptical at first. I wondered if Jay was someone who was just looking to take advantage of a situation. I quickly learned that was not the case. I sent Jay a detailed e-mail full of questions. He graciously responded to every question with detailed answers. I know it must have taken him a lot of time to respond to them all in such detail.

During the vote crisis, he devoted a lot of time to helping us understand IAM rules and by-laws. He openly opposed interference by our International and state and local officials. He traveled to Washington during the week of January 3 to campaign and to meet members during the vote, and he supported us and opposed the International.

Local A of District 751 voted to endorse Cronk and his slate on February 4. Local F will likely vote to endorse as well, and these are the biggest locals in District 751.

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