We’re saying no to the blackmailers at Boeing

January 3, 2014

On January 3, members of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) District 751 at aircraft maker Boeing in the Puget Sound region will vote for a second time on an eight-year contract “extension” that, in reality, adds drastic concessions designed to weaken union power. This critical battle pits a corporate giant and its political servants in both parties against a determined rank and file that defied its own International leadership in making a stand against concessions.

Boeing is demanding that IAM members accept the proposal, or it will move production of its new 777X airliner to other facilities. International leaders of the IAM pushed for District 751 members to ratify the offer in a mid-November vote, but the rank-and-file stood strong and rejected it overwhelmingly. In December, Boeing presented another offer, with some—but not nearly all—of the concessions removed, and demanded another vote. The International went over the heads of District 751 officials who opposed the new offer, and ordered a vote for January 3, while a number of members are still off for the holiday break. IAM members have filed charges with the NLRB to delay the vote.

Shannon Ryker is a member of IAM District 751 and a worker at Boeing for eight years and in the aerospace industry for another eight. She has been an outspoken opponent of the company’s demands for concessions and the union leadership’s acquiescence—both in letters written to the mainstream press and at her Rosie’s Machinists blog and her Rosie's Machinists Facebook page. At the end of December, Shannon talked to Leela Yellesetty about what’s at stake in the January 3 vote.

LET'S START with the initial vote on Boeing's proposal for an eight-year contract extension, which was overwhelmingly defeated in November. Why was the response of IAM members so negative?

I THINK Boeing is trying to take a situation and use it to their advantage at a time when they think they have the most leverage. But this isn't a time they should be allowed to use that leverage. They're trying to work outside of the confines of the contract.

I call it an ultimatum, because they're saying: Do this, or we'll do that. That's not right. They're telling members that if they don't say yes, they'll move or take away their jobs. To me that's unethical and wrong.

WHAT DO you make of Boeing's claim that they're just trying to extend the existing contract?

THAT'S HOW they word it, but their wording is inaccurate and incorrect. A contract extension would be them offering the same contract, exactly as it is. If they offered the current contract and said, hey, we just want to roll it over for eight years, people would say yes in a heartbeat.

Boeing machinists march to their union hall to vote on the company's final contract offer
IAM members on the march during the 2008 strike against Boeing

But they're trying to increase medical costs and take away pensions--and in the first contract offer, they wanted to take away progression steps as well. So it would take people 20-plus years to max out--basically an entire career. To say this is just an extension is a play on words.

HOW DID YOU vote on the first contract offer? And what was the response of members to how the local union leadership behaved?

I VOTED a resounding no. I wasn't at the union meeting right after the vote, but I talked to other members who were there, and they said it was standing-room-only in there, and the line to speak was all the way to the back--with person after person asking the union leadership how you could do this, why you went behind our backs. They were just really mad. The last union meeting I went to in December was not quite as crowded, but the sentiment was the same. People were feeling all the same emotions.

So there was a lot of outrage about how the union handled the first contract proposal--the lack of communication with the membership and the wishy-washy stance. [District President] Tom Wroblewski really did a disservice to the membership on the first contract. He decided to take a "neutral" position, instead of recommending yes or no.

So that left a lot of confusion for our members. They didn't know what to think. They had Boeing telling them to vote yes, they had the news media telling them to vote yes, they had [Washington state Gov.] Jay Inslee telling them to vote yes. And then they had old-timers and others in the union saying this was wrong, and you need to vote no. And our union was split, with some of the business reps telling people to vote yes, some to vote no, and others saying the union's neutral.

DID YOU get details of the proposal prior to the vote?

WE HAD one week to look over the details of the first proposal, but no more than that.

IT'S A week before the union has scheduled another vote on a new proposal? Do you have the details on that offer?

IT'S VIRTUALLY identical, except they increased some dental coverage and removed the part of the plan that eliminated step progression. Everything else is pretty much still the same. Plus there's a lot of wishy-washy language and a lot of gaps where they haven't constructed certain things. So the actual wording and language isn't even there for us to read. How can you vote on something that isn't even constructed?

IT SOUNDS like this time around, the local leadership is opposed to the proposal.

YES. I think with the backlash from the first vote and the lack of leadership we experienced, Tom learned a lesson. The response of the membership against the way he handled that was so strong that I think he took it as a learning experience and decided that he's going stand with his membership. I feel like he finally took the leadership role by the reins. The difference is night and day: you see him saying no, this is not a good contract, I want you to vote no.

BUT NOW I understand that the International leadership is actually arguing for a yes vote?

YES, THE International has stepped in. I don't know if they're arguing for a "yes" vote exactly, but they are making us vote. They have disregarded the membership and the recommendations of our local leadership, which our membership backs, and decided to push their own agenda.

YOU WERE saying that the Washington state political establishment, which the Democrats dominate, is pushing for a "yes" vote. The state legislature just passed $8.7 billion in tax breaks for Boeing.

I FEEL like Boeing is playing everyone. The government officials are like putty in their hands. They're doing anything and everything to please Boeing and cave to their demands, even at the expense of their own citizens and their own state. You have a corporation that makes billions of dollars a year and sells airplanes for the prices they do, but yet they still need the state government to give them $8.7 billion so that they can stay and operate in this area? And then they try to blackmail other states into giving them the same amount of money at the expense of their taxpayers?

I'm all for keeping Boeing in the state--I'm all for keeping my job. But Boeing seems to have a long list of things they're asking people to give them--it seems to me like they're wanting a charity handout.

I WAS reading an article the other day about the other states where Boeing is shopping around production of the 777X, and its list of requirements included basically a "no cost" facility.

THAT WOULD be like me and going into a McDonald's and saying, I want the hamburger and I want the fries and I want the coke, and not only do I want you to give me that for free, I want you to pay my taxes, too. And the only thing I feel like I need to do for you is bless you by walking through the front door.

HOW REAL do you think Boeing's threats are? From what I've read, I get the impression that it would be much easier and cheaper to manufacture the 777X here, because they already have an experienced workforce and all the facilities set up here.

YES, EXACTLY. I work on the 777 currently. From my understanding, they're going to be building a new wing, but the fuselage is mainly going to stay the way it is now. Which means there aren't going to be a lot of modifications to tooling and the existing processes going on when it comes to building the body. So why would you build an airplane somewhere else when you already have 90 percent of the airplane set up, and people who already know how to construct the plane?

It just makes zero sense. All the jobs on the fuselage will stay the same except for the portion that's built near where the wing attaches. That means every other aspect of the plane is going to be built exactly the way it's already built.

I suppose they could do it--the possibility is there. But it would not be a very smart move, in my opinion. Plus, they currently have $100 billion in orders, and those customers have already specified that they want the plane built in one location, because they don't want to see another 787 debacle with all the delays. So if your customers who put in $100 billion worth of orders are telling you what they want, are you going to go and do the very opposite? It makes no sense to me.

IS IT that they want to break the union that badly?

I THINK that's part of it. I think the CEO of our company hates unions that much and is willing to go to any length to break the union. That's sad. I feel like that's a really strong motivation for him.

IN THE media's articles about how Boeing workers should accept the contract, they often write about how much money you make. What's the reality?

I'M A grade 5. We have grades 1 through 11, with a starting A grade, as well. If you go onto the IAM District 751 website, you can download a wage card and it will show you the exact scale--the starting rate and final rate for every level.

I started as a grade 4 mechanic at $12.72 an hour. About two or three years ago, they raised all the starting rates, so a grade 4 now starts at $15 an hour. So for a new employee starting out, they're looking at $32,000 a year. Let's say that's a man with a wife who doesn't work and two kids--that doesn't go very far. So when people say we're rich, I'm like: Seriously? The first couple years I was a Boeing employee, I lived in low-income housing, and my kids qualified for reduced lunches.

IT'S KIND of rich to hear multibillion-dollar companies call their employees greedy.

I KNOW, right?? For them to plant that seed in the head of the entire region, and have people defending the corporation, defending the CEO and saying he deserves what he makes and you don't--are you kidding me? The guy's going to make $250,000 a month when he retires, and you're complaining because I want to keep my lousy $2,200 a month pension?

It just blows my mind. James McNerney doesn't want to give up his pension or those of his colleagues, but he wants to give away mine and everyone I work with? I really think that's hypocritical.

YOU MENTIONED that in the first proposal, they were trying to take away step increases, which is how new workers get raises. Do you feel like there's a concerted effort to pit newer workers against old-timers?

IN THE first contract, that was exactly what they were doing. They offered a great big bonus of $10,000, thinking that the newer employees would say they need that money, since they know the newer employees are on the low end of the scale. They also sweetened the deal for retirees by making it so you get a full pension if you retire at 58--the current age is 62. So they tried to pit the young against the old, and hung the middle out to dry--I'm in the middle.

WHAT WOULD happen to your pension if this went through?

I'VE GOT eight years on my pension. I still have about 20 to 25 years to go to get full benefits. What they're saying is they'll freeze my pension so I'll have eight years in there, and I'll get a payment on that for the rest of my life--but that will be only a small amount.

Then they'll start putting money into a 401(k) account for me every year. But the problem with a 401(k) is you're betting your money on the ups and downs of the stock market. That's not a guarantee. A pension is a guarantee that I'm going to get X amount of dollars.

As of right now, the average pension is $2,200 a month. Most people have a 401(k) to supplement that, but this contract would take the pension plan away and make us just rely on the stock market. I know people who lost $100,000 from their 401(k) plans in the last crash. That's a scary thing. If I know at least two or three people who lost that kind of money, you know there are a lot of other members who are feeling that same insecurity.

SO THEY'RE trying to dazzle members with the upfront signing bonus while taking things away down the road.

YES, THEY were hoping enough of the retirees might not care and take the sweet deal, and enough of the new guys wouldn't know any better and take the 10-grand, without understanding the consequences. But we proved them wrong. We had over 70 percent saying that we're not going to do that. It probably would have been more, but there was a lot of fear.

WHAT DO think the sentiment among members is like going into the January 3 vote?

PISSED. OUR union stood strong for us and said no on the contract, and then at the last minute--the day after most people go out for Christmas vacation--they announced they were going to push a vote on January 3, the day after we come back from holiday. But since January 3 is a Friday, most people aren't actually going to be back until Monday.

People are mad. It may have been close if they would have waited, but I think a lot of people who may have voted "yes" might vote "no" now just because of the way they handled the situation.

I HEARD that to accommodate people on vacation, they would be sending out absentee ballots?

SURE, IT'S fine if you do absentee ballots, and people are home during the election process, but if you do it during a major holiday season and people are out of town or on the road, they're not going to be there to get their mail. If you're on the road, driving through different states, you're not going to be able to specify where to send the ballot. There's a lot of people in that position, including my dad.

This is sneaky, backhanded tactics. It's a slap in the face to the membership--very disrespectful and in very bad faith.

SO YOU think there's a good likelihood this will get voted down again?

I HOPE so. I hope that voting it down again will send a message to Boeing that we will not tolerate being bullied, we will not tolerate ultimatums, we will not tolerate trying to negotiate outside the confines of our contract just because they have leverage now.

In addition to that, I would hope our International president understands that no means no, and what our membership says is what he needs to do. For him to overstep his bounds and defy the membership the way he has--that's out of line. His job is to serve the membership. When you stop serving the membership, that's when it's time for you to go.

HAS THERE been any sort of organizing around pushing for a "no" vote?

A LOT of members are trying to rally people and get the word out. The local has come out for a no vote and sent out e-mails. So now our job is to try and reach as many members as possible during the Christmas vacation and let them know what's happening. We've also been encouraging members to contact the NLRB and file complaints about the timing of the vote and the disservice it does to the membership. There are multiple complaints already filed in that regard.

YOUR CURRENT contract doesn't actually expire until 2016, so presumably, if this goes down, you would just continue on that contact?

YES, WE just fulfill the rest of the contract and resume negotiations in 2016. We've gotten a lot of flack from local people about this contract and about us voting no--they are under this delusion that we're going out on strike and we're causing problems. They don't understand that we're operating under the confines of our contract and that it is Boeing that's acting in bad faith.

Boeing has paid a lot of money to mold public opinion and demonize us. They did a very good job with way they went about that first vote, announcing that we've got $8.7 billion in tax breaks, and now it's all riding on the machinists. That was just terrible. How can you do that to your workforce? I have no respect for that.

YOU AND other Boeing workers have written that this battle isn't about you alone, but will benefit other workers as well. Why is that?

I THINK employers are watching eagerly to see how this plays out. If Boeing is successful in getting a "yes" vote using these tactics, using ultimatums and threats, and working outside the contract, I think that could change the future of collective bargaining--not just for Boeing employees, but for workers everywhere. Companies will see that the tactic worked, and if it worked on us, it will work on their workers.

This isn't just an IAM 751 issue. I truly believe this is an issue for the whole labor movement. If we as unions don't wake up and start to fight back--if we don't start telling Corporate America that it's not okay, you can't behave that way, and we're not going to tolerate it--this is just going to keep happening. And we're going to see the middle class just get smaller and smaller. The divide is already deepening as we speak, and I think the weakening of labor unions would just deepen that gap.

WHAT CAN those of us outside your local--other workers, other unionists and community members--do to support your fight and help revive the labor movement?

I'VE SENT an open letter to all unions asking them to send messages to our local and state government officials and to our union leaders, including Thomas Buffenbarger, the International president. Let them know that you're behind us--that you support the IAM 751 membership and you don't agree with ultimatums and threats. It's one thing if we as 751 members stand up, but it's a whole other thing if all the unions around us locally and even nationally stand up and say: No, this isn't okay.

THE ARGUMENT in favor of IAM members voting for the contact is that this will save jobs in this state, because of the production of the 777X. What do you say to this argument?

THEY'RE TRYING to force us into this contract to create 8,000 jobs, but what kind of jobs do they want to create? Do they want to create jobs that are middle class, that have extra buying power to support the economy, or do they want to create 8,000 low-income jobs, where those people are going to qualify for state assistance, low-income housing and subsidized lunches for their children? One is going to be sucking from resources from the economy, and the other is going to be building up the economy.

I would think that our local government would want the kind of jobs that build the economy, and that they would support IAM 751 members to keep that economy thriving. Because the other kind of jobs defeats what they're trying to create. The reality is that those would be 8,000 new jobs that would all start at the low base rate, and you'll have people trying to raise a family on that. And if that first contract had passed, they could have been stuck at that low base rate for their entire careers.

YOUR LOCAL has a long tradition of militancy, including as recently as the 2008 strike. What was your impression of that strike?

I WAS involved in that strike. That was when the membership was very unified. When we voted "no" on that contract, it was an astounding "no." And that was a better contract offter than what they're trying to offer us right now. But because of the fear tactics--the fear that we might lose 8,000 jobs--people are really skittish and scared.

WHAT DO you think it is about this union that makes members so unified? You talked about people being scared this time around, but it seems like compared to a lot of other workers, IAM 751 members are mostly holding strong.

WE'RE A multigenerational workforce. In my family alone, I have eight family members involved with this company: my dad, my brother, my brother-in-law, my brother-in-law's dad; my sister worked there before she was pregnant; my uncle retired from there; and my grandpa retired from there.

For every person like me who has a story like that, there are hundreds of others. So when it's about your family and your neighbors, I think that's what unifies us the most. On the street I grew up on, there were probably 11 or 12 houses in all, and eight of those houses had Boeing employees working in them. When you know so many people who are affected by something, you don't care just about yourself--you care about everyone you know who is affected by it.

You grow up with this. As a little girl, I remember my dad being laid off, and I remember him being on strike. I remember going to union functions with him.

RECENTLY, THE IAM agreed to hold elections for its national leadership again after a Labor Department investigation found big obstacles for any challenges getting nominated or running for International office. What's your take on the elections?

I'M NOT the best person to comment on union politics, but what I've learned from older members is that the way elections have been set up in the past have been very restrictive and limited, and only certain people could be nominated and elected. It became a good-old-boys' club, where only people in this close-knit tight circle could even get close to being elected.

Somebody finally tried to challenge that in the last election in early 2013, and they found roadblocks everywhere they went. Karen Ascuncion was the challenger, and she had the backing of 25 lodges to run for a vice president's position. Yet when it came to putting her on the ballot she didn't make it on. So she filed a complaint with the Labor Department, and they did an investigation and found her allegations to be true. So they ordered this new election, where the whole membership is supposed to be able to vote.

WHAT DO you think about Jay Cronk, who is running as a reform candidate for International president?

I THINK we need to get someone new in. I think that Jay could be that person.

I'm still getting to know Jay--I've talked with him on several occasions and via e-mail, and he seems like a solid guy. Whether it's Jay or another IAM member in that kind of position who has the fortitude to work for the union membership, that's what we need to see in there.

I think we need to reform how we think about unions and how we educate people about unions. We need to get people involved in unions again, because otherwise, we're going to see them go extinct. I think that Thomas Buffenbarger has put a nail in the coffin of unionism. Unless we make some drastic changes, and we start to get the public involved in why unionism is important, we're going to see it go away, and that would be sad.

I think it's time to realize that apathy is our enemy. Staying silent and doing nothing is exactly what they want us to do. That way, only their voices are heard. And when only their voices are heard, they get exactly what they want.

So we need to change the conversation. We need to start doing something different. We need to start participating and organizing and getting involved, because that's the only way you're going to change public opinion. That's the only way people are going to understand you and what you're about. There's this other side out there, spreading lies and telling people, "They're greedy, they're selfish, it's all their fault, they cause strikes." If you're silent, what is everyone going to believe? The silence is killing us.

Further Reading

From the archives