BOEING'S MACHINISTS' UNION couldn't find a break in the clouds last week following the gloomy announcement that Boeing may lay off as many as 30,000 employees in its commercial airplane division. Not only did Congress neglect to include funding to aid scuttled workers in its $15 billion airline-industry bailout legislation, but Boeing flat-out refused to preserve 2,000 jobs in the Puget Sound area by canceling job orders it plans to farm out to subcontractors. The machinists' union called on Boeing to keep that work in-house immediately following the layoff announcement last Tuesday, but the company response was the curt rejoinder: "We do not expect there to be any change to the fundamental business partnerships we have around the world." About two-thirds of every new Boeing aircraft is already manufactured by outside suppliers, many located overseas, and the company contends that it has to do business abroad to sell airplanes in foreign markets.
Recent events have cowed the union into a more docile position than it took last May, when it sued Boeing over outsourcing. The union alleged that the company violated its union contract by arranging to ship work out before negotiating with workers to determine whether it could be done just as economically in-house. A federal district judge sent that dispute into arbitration. But now, with reports that $14 billion in unwanted commercial jets have been produced worldwide, neither the machinists nor Boeing's other major union, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), are lobbing grenades at company management. The unions have accepted painful cuts and say they just want to take care of their membership.
But has Boeing been so considerate of its workers, particularly its rivet punchers and tube benders? The company has made plain in recent months its dissatisfaction with the single-digit profit margins from aircraft manufacturing. The new emphasis is on satellite communications and after-market services, a pursuit that, according to Boeing's latest annual report, cut steeply into company profits last year. Interviewed at the Paris Air Show last June, Boeing executives boasted that the company's service industry would soon rival the size of its manufacturing operations. A Boeing spokesperson says the company has broadened its operations to protect workers from the cyclical nature of the aviation industry, not displace them—the same argument it uses to justify the use of outside contractors—but the unions certainly don't buy it. SPEEA spokesperson Bill Dugovich comments, "Their contention is that by contracting out, it saves Boeing from having to hire more and [then] lay them off. Our contention is we've yet to meet many people on a contract who would not rather have a job with the company."