Labor trouble

Union dissidents at Boeing charge that the local machinists election carried a foul tailwind.

DAVID CLAY SPOKE breathlessly into the phone a couple of weeks ago, "We talked to Slade Gorton's office. We've asked for independent observers." That's how bad the election was going.

What election in this country, you may ask, requires independent observers, normally used in corrupt, tyrannical Third World regimes? According to Clay, the two-week election held earlier this month by District 751 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the district covering Boeing.

A veteran Boeing toolmaker who for years has led a dissident movement within the union (and who happens to be Maria Cantwell's brother-in-law), Clay ran for reelection to the governing body known as district council. If he won, he intended to stand for president in subsequent elections this January. He lost, as did almost all of his allies on a slate of so-called independents. But he claims that they might not have were it not for numerous election improprieties carried out, Teamsters style, by an incumbent leadership that breaches any opposition. No independent observers ever came.

The wrongdoing, according to the allegations, included using vans to haul supporters from the workplace to the polls, in violation of company policy; spending union money on a lunch for retirees at which a speaker endorsed the union establishment; and "bribing" voters by holding a picnic outside a polling place.

"What we really have here is one-party rule," says Clay, who likes to say that he feels like he's living in a banana republic. And that, he suggests, is an important challenge to democracy when it concerns the biggest union at Boeing, with about 25,000 members around the Puget Sound. The local district is the biggest in the international union, which itself is one of the biggest and most powerful unions in the country. As well as affecting the workday of thousands, the union is a major player in national elections. Its political action committee has donated nearly $2 million to Democratic candidates this election season, making it the country's 20th biggest donor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

If Clay and his supporters believe they are part of a democracy movement, akin to recent uprisings in the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO, union brass see them simply as sore losers. "The challengers call up people and whine. That's just part of the game," says John McGinnis, an influential union figure who heads joint programs run by Boeing and the Machinists and holds top positions in the Pierce County and Washington state labor councils.

But Clay's complaints, whiny or not, have been taken seriously by both the federal Department of Labor and a Congressional subcommittee. In 1997, Clay complained to the labor department of alleged election abuses after losing a bid for presidency by only 174 votes, the closest race ever in the district's history. After investigating, the Labor Department's Seattle office indeed concluded that improprieties were carried out by a slate of establishment candidates headed by current president Bill Johnson, known as the "Dedicated Unionists." The office's report, submitted to the department's national office, consequently recommended that the election be overturned.

The national office, however, ultimately chose not to order a new election, arguing that the violations were not substantial enough to have impacted the election results. Clay suspects the union's heavy political clout was at work in that decision. A Congressional subcommittee championing labor law reform sharply criticized the Labor Department for its decision and called for Congressional hearings to be held in Seattle on the matter. They never were.

THE MACHINIST UNION at Boeing is renowned for not only its size but also its militancy. It has struck repeatedly and won important concessions. Although president Johnson took a lot of heat during the '95 strike for offering contracts rejected by the membership, he negotiated a surprisingly tough contract last year which prevents Boeing from laying off workers in order to subcontract. When the engineers union struck for the first time earlier this year, its leaders and members alike spoke wistfully of the machinists as a model. So it's hard to buy the argument, made by insurgents, that machinists leaders have been so focused on holding onto power that they haven't done anything for the membership.

Clay and his supporters point out that the company is still laying people off, even if not for the specific reason of subcontracting. And the company initiated a consolidation plan in August that has workers fearing plant shutdowns. To hold the union responsible for such things, however, smacks of grandstanding that ignores the enormous challenge its leadership is up against. Since the McDonnell Douglas merger, the company has been on an all-out crusade to cut costs, dumping its historic family-like culture in the process.

But that doesn't mean that the machinists union is free from corruption. As always, there's a financial incentive to staying in power. Full-time union jobs pay about $90,000 a year, and there are no formal limits on sick leave. As at many unions, unfettered by the scrutiny that accompanies governmental politics, there have been abuses. In 1993, Johnson's predecessor, Tom Baker, was sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty to embezzling tens of thousands of dollars in union funds. Then, there were the improprieties noted by the investigations into the '97 elections.

SITTING IN HIS KITCHEN table in Snohomish after his most recent loss, Clay says that the failure of any concrete results from those inquiries made the reigning Dedicated Unionists feel that they could get away with similar stunts again. It was an important election but, in a way, more of a primary. Those elected to district council this month can run for officer slots in January. And the top slot is up for grabs, since Johnson is retiring at the end of his term. Vying against Clay was the Dedicated Unionists' favorite, Mark Blondin, a 41-year-old union staffer and former toolmaker who talks, at least, of healing divisions and "working together."

But Clay, an intense 46-year-old who talks for hours with unwavering focus, maintains that Blondin's team, aided and abetted by Boeing, "pulled out all the stops to make sure I didn't get on council." Already, Charles McClain, a candidate allied with Clay, has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, charging Boeing allowed Dedicated Unionists to campaign on company property while enjoining opponents from doing the same. Boeing asserts that it applied its policies impartially, first forbidding any campaigning on its property, then relenting and allowing politicking during breaks.

To make their case, Clay and his supporters have documented alleged violations with pictures, videotape, and reams of e-mails from witnesses detailing times and places. Surprisingly, the Dedicated Unionists, who insist they ran a conscientious campaign, admit to some of the facts. For instance, Bruce Spalding, a district council candidate who plans to run for secretary-treasurer, says he was indeed at the wheel of a van that shuttled voters from a Boeing parking lot in Everett to a union hall operating as a polling place. The important point, he says, is he never took the van onto "company-controlled property," as the Boeing policy terms what is off limits. Rather than using his union credentials to drive inside the Boeing gate, which is what he says got the Dedicated Unionists into trouble in the past, he picked up voters in the parking lot, which Clay or anybody else could access.

Spalding's point about access is well-taken, even though he's fudging when he describes company policy. (A Boeing memo makes a point of saying that company-controlled property encompasses parking lots.) Still, there's more than a whiff of old-style machine politics in the van trips. Spalding won't say if he hauled supporters, as opposed to anybody who wanted to vote. "I'm getting real uncomfortable," he says when asked.

But John McGinnis, the prominent union figure from Pierce County, is up-front about the way he used vans when he was a candidate in times past. "Someone will say, 'I want to help you. I'll line up some people to go vote.'" And he'd bring a van around to get them.

Still, the Dedicated Unionists say that Clay and his ilk are far from pure. Presidential hopeful Mark Blondin, asked about a contention by Clay that he spotted Blondin campaigning inappropriately during work time at the Everett plant, replies that it's a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Blondin says he was talking with a shop steward on a break, as rules allow, when "who comes out carrying a bunch of campaign literature but David Clay. You should have seen the look on his face when he saw us." (Whether or not this would have violated company rules would have depended on where he distributed the literature, which was not allowed in work areas.)

Clearly, it would take an investigation to sort through such charges and counter charges. But at least one of Clay's claims is obviously true in light of the election results: There is only one "party" of note now that the Dedicated Unionists have virtually eliminated their opposition. Since you have to be on District Council to run for officer, there won't be independent challengers for most positions in January. The fact is not lost on McGinnis. "From my point of view," he says, "there is not two sides. There's only one side."

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