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Boeing Machinists' Plight Marks Changing Times For Labor

Boeing Machinists' Plight Marks Changing Times For Labor

The mood at the Seattle union hall was quiet, almost funereal on the night Boeing workers narrowly approved an offer tobuild the company's new airliner, the 777X.

Members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers who had gathered had wanted to reject the offer. But they were in a tight spot. They risked losing the bid to one of the 21 states hoping to step in.

Washington state ultimately managed to keep the jobs. But after the state offered the company major tax incentives and union members took concessions, many are left unsatisfied.

Machinist Wilson Ferguson mourns the pension his union fought so long to get — and keep.

"We didn't get that pension when we formed a union 78 years ago. We didn't get that pension till 1959," Ferguson says. "Now it's gone and will never be back."

The Boeing contract phases out the pension over time, replacing it with a 401(k). The contract also increases health costs at a time when the company's profits and stock are soaring. Workers felt backed into a corner, Ferguson says. Boeing threatened to move the jobs away; local politicians, and even their own national union leaders, pushed the machinists to accept.

"Everybody was fighting against us and we lost by 1 percentage point," Ferguson says. "We put up a hell of a fight. But we lost." The new labor pact was approved with 51 percent of machinists voting yes.

This push by Boeing to wring concessions from its unionized workers echoes what's happened at other big manufacturers and demonstrates the state of organized labor across the country.

Two thousand miles away in Joliet, Ill., machinists at Caterpillar went on strike in 2012 during a contract dispute. They rejected cuts to the pension when Caterpillar was making big profits, just like Boeing is now. Almost four months later, they wound up accepting an only slightly improved contract.

Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, sees the two events as connected.

"Boeing not only used the Caterpillar model, where it's extracted enormous concessions from its workers, which they didn't need in order to prosper," Stern says. "But then they went and took it a step further and hijacked and blackmailed the government."

Those are strong words — still, Boeing succeeded in winning almost $9 billion in tax incentives from Washington state. The company declined to comment, but Richard Gritta, finance professor at the University of Portland, says the aircraft industry is cutthroat and volatile and Boeing does have to worry about labor costs ballooning over time.

"You try to keep all your costs to a minimum because you know this industry is highly cyclical," Gritta says. "God knows what will happen to the airline business in the next four or five years."

Still, pushing workers to make sacrifices when companies are seeing profits is new, says Jake Rosenfeld, an associate professor at the University of Washington researching unions.

"For a period there, surrounding the decades around World War II, many major highly profitable and highly protected manufacturing firms, firms like Boeing today, just didn't take this kind of step," he says.

They didn't have to. There wasn't as much global competition, but that has changed. Union membership has dropped and political winds have shifted. Organized labor has few allies in the GOP and has even lost support among some Democrats.

But there is a bright spot.

Low-wage workers have struck a chord in the small town of SeaTac, Wash. Voters there raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour for airport and hospitality workers, a move that a judge has partly reversed. But now unions and activists want Seattle to follow that example and set a $15 an hour minimum wage. Stern says sentiment is changing.

"People are starting to say, you know, I may not like unions and I may not like government and I may not like Democrats, but I really don't like the fact that my kids and my grandkids can't get ahead anymore," Stern says. "And something has to change."

Even some Boeing workers are living up to their nickname "The Fighting Machinists." After filing charges with the National Labor Relations Board, they are pushing for a revote.

Copyright 2021 KNKX Public Radio. To see more, visit KNKX Public Radio.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.