Pie in the Boeing Sky

The Machinists have chosen an odd time to ask for the moon.

WHAT WERE THE Machinists thinking? That's the question that has to be asked as a train wreck of a negotiations process between the union and Boeing careens into another strike vote on Thursday and Friday.

The union aborted the first vote on the company's offer—on Aug. 29—after it told members on election day that mediators had "ordered," rather than requested, more talks. When it realized that the misleading message was affecting how the membership viewed the contract offer, the union sealed the votes, uncounted. But the union leadership's actions were puzzling long before the election misstep. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents mechanics and others who assemble Boeing jetliners here and elsewhere, already seemed headed for a strike, and possibly at the worst time ever.

The Machinists have a right to be angry at the company. On the heels of the 1997 McDonnell Douglas merger, Boeing turned its back on much of what made the company what it is today, including a nearly century-long relationship with the Seattle area. After moving its headquarters to Chicago last year, Boeing has continued to stress its need to outsource jobs in order to cut costs and log orders abroad. At the Farnborough Air Show in England this summer, Boeing executives indicated that not all of the 30,000 workers laid off before and after 9/11 will be hired back as the company increasingly becomes an "integrator"—that is, a company that assembles parts without necessarily manufacturing them.

So it's hard not to experience a Norma Rae moment and feel like cheering when Machinists president Mark Blondin says, as he did while rejecting Boeing's final contract offer, that "enough is enough."

If you set that anger aside, however, and consider the company's stance, the economic climate, and the fallout in the airline business after 9/11, you have to wonder if this was the time to push for precedent- setting job guarantees, as the union did. The Machinists tried to tie the company to specific numbers of employees, which would rise as production rises. It also wanted to increase the company's monthly pension payments from $50 to $120 per year of service—an increase of 140 percent.

"I think they were shooting for the moon," says disgruntled Machinist David Clay, who notes that it took more than 20 years to get just a $10 increase in pension payments to the current level.

Shooting high is not necessarily a bad thing. "That's what unions are supposed to do—they're supposed to aggressively defend workers rights," says Margaret Levi, a University of Washington professor who studies the labor movement.

But the union seemed to back itself into a corner by asking for so much. In a press conference on the day of Boeing's final offer, Commercial Airplanes president Alan Mulally called the negotiations "thoughtful" and said the company had gone out of its way to "really listen to what's important to [union] members." The same day, Machinists head Blondin said the company engaged in "surface bargaining," never really addressing the union's demands. Blondin further complained that at the DoubleTree Hotel near Sea-Tac Airport, some of Boeing's people were "sitting by the swimming pool as we were trying to negotiate our contract. That's how seriously they took it."

The company's final offer does contain raises, including an 8 percent signing bonus, but only a 20 percent pension increase and job-security provisions that seem to go backward rather than forward: It allows employees of outside suppliers onto the factory floor.

"Obviously, they want to strike us," Blondin concluded at the union's press conference. "It's amazing," added Dick Schneider, the Machinists' chief negotiator. "It's the first time we've seen a company want to strike its workers."

WHILE THE COMPANY has protested that such is not the case, Wall Street analysts say a strike would be good for the bottom line, allowing Boeing to save on labor costs at a time when airplane orders have been cut in half. Indeed, the company said it was likely to shut down production altogether, which would effectively mean making engineers and other employees outside the Machinists union join a strike they had not voted for.

If that's the company's plan, the union played right into it. Not getting anything near what it sought, the union advised members to vote for strike authorization. It wasn't clear that the membership was going to go along; many Machinists, like Auburn riveter Mike Cummings, said they weren't crazy about the contract but doubted they'd have anything to gain by striking. And when the union released the misleadingly worded letter to members on the day of the vote, saying further talks had been ordered, some suspected manipulation.

The "talks" did occur late last week, though Boeing and the union communicated through federal mediators, not face to face. That apparently led nowhere, hence the new vote this Thursday and Friday.

Whatever the outcome, it's ironic, given Boeing's recent dismissiveness toward employees and the region, that it's the union that has explaining to do.


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