By STEVE LEIGH
The Boeing company, one of the world’s two largest airplane manufacturers, announced on Oct. 1 that it would shut down production of its 787 Dreamliner in Everett, Wash., 30 miles north of Seattle as of 2021. Demand for the plane has dropped precipitously due to COVID-19. This will throw at least 1000 workers out of their jobs. Boeing will move production to North Charleston, S.C.
The company tried to make this sound like a purely neutral business decision. Boeing now has two lines of 787 production, one in Everett and one in South Carolina. There is one big difference between the two—Everett is unionized, South Carolina is not.
Boeing decided to switch all 787 production to the non-union facility to save money and weaken the union, International Association of Machinists (IAM), District 751. It will also cut jobs in the engineering union, Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), IFPTE Local 2001. Some commentators see this as the start of Boeing’s plan to move all its production to non-union facilities outside Washington state.
Boeing has had a fraught relationship with Washington state. Before the tech boom, Boeing was the largest employer in the Seattle/Puget Sound area. It currently employs over 60,000 people, including around 30,000 in the IAM. Thousands more worked for companies supplying parts to Boeing. Almost all Boeing planes were made in Washington, with some union production in Wichita, Kan.
In 2009, Boeing began to move production away from Washington. Its first Dreamliner rolled off the production line in South Carolina in 2012. The IAM’s attempt to win a collective bargaining election in South Carolina failed in 2017 amid a major company anti-union campaign.
The IAM opposed the move to South Carolina. It filed an unfair labor practices charge but lost that fight in the NLRB and the courts. It did not, however, use its real power. With virtually all production concentrated in Washington state at the time, it could have gone on strike to prevent transfer of production. Boeing could have been forced to give up its transfer plans.
The union has gone on strike several times against Boeing over wages, conditions, etc., but chose not to strike over the threat to its own survival (see: https://socialistworker.org/2008/09/05/strike-back-on-at-boeing). Following its defeat over the move to South Carolina, the Machinist union leadership chose to collaborate further with the company. In 2013, Boeing demanded major concessions on the medical plan and pensions, etc. in order to keep production in Washington. Machinist members voted this down overwhelmingly. The union leaders waged a major campaign to win acceptance of the concession contract in a new vote when many workers were out on vacation. The company and union leadership won a very narrow victory. This resulted in defined benefit pensions being frozen from 2016 on (see: https://socialistworker.org/2014/01/06/blackmail-and-betrayal-at-boeing).
It was not only the company and union leaders that ganged up on the workers but state officials as well. Democratic Governor Jay Inslee and both Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature rushed through a tax cut for Boeing to entice it to keep jobs in Washington state. Boeing did promise to keep certain lines of production in the state through 2024. State officials called on Boeing workers to vote for pension cuts and other concessions as part of the joint effort to keep Boeing in the state.
The latest move by Boeing has resulted in a re-evaluation by some state officials. Governor Inslee sounded shocked at Boeing’s betrayal of the state and previous promises to keep jobs in Washington. “Speaking at a news conference Thursday, Inslee said he had not made any decisions, but insisted Boeing’s preferential tax treatment—long enshrined in Washington’s tax code through bipartisan votes—will be on the table in the coming months” (Seattle Times, Oct. 2, 2020).
Union leaders are, of course, opposed to the move as well. “This is disappointing to our members and all Boeing employees in the Puget Sound region,” said SPEEA President Ryan Rule.
SPEEA Executive Director Ray Goforth stated, “We believe Boeing is making a mistake. SPEEA’s immediate focus is supporting the members who will be laid-off. Long term we will partner with community stakeholders to attract new aerospace jobs to the state by marketing the aerospace talent pool Boeing is walking away from” (https://www.speea.org/).
IAM leaders echoed this sentiment. District 751 President Jon Holden said: “IAM District 751 believes this is the wrong decision and just another in a string of bad decisions Boeing has made that fails to capitalize on the strengths of our workforce. Boeing leaders discount the efficiency, quality and productivity of our Puget Sound workforce. This company fails to take into account all the benefits Washington state offers in support of training programs, higher education, research and innovation, infrastructure, and continued tax incentives. Additionally, favoring a non-union site is only about control of the workforce, nothing more.” See:
The statements from the union leaders are primarily appeals to Boeing’s business interests. They show no willingness or even contemplation of the need to fight the decision.
In 2013-14 there was active rank-and-file opposition to the sell-out contract. There was a national election campaign against IAM President Buffenbarger. Locally, Rosie’s Machinists, a rank-and-file group in the union, and others opposed the contract. This time around as well, many union members are opposed to Boeing’s move and think the union should have fought the move to South Carolina.
As Rosie’s Machinists said on their Facebook page: “Rosie’s Machinists believe that the union members were put behind the eight ball yet again … we should have stood our ground the first time they opened mid contract for an extension. It should have been cemented in our contract that Boeing could never dig soil in another state. The last contract opened holes in every program allowing the planes to be manufactured in other states and countries whenever they want. The word ‘feasibility’ means the company and only the company decides what is feasible. No facts no numbers…” (https://www.facebook.com/rosiesmachinists751/).
Will Crowley, a long-time Seattle area Boeing machinist, agreed, saying: “This was not unexpected. Boeing has for a long time coveted union busting. They want the Puget Sound workforce to give away what they have earned over the years. They took steps to freeze our pensions. They’ve moved some work to right-to-work states. They want a style of management that Wall Street enjoys, not what is good for the workers. There is a roughly 50% pay differential between the Seattle area and South Carolina. This has killed morale at work. I don’t expect much action out of Holden [IAM District 751 president].”
This whole episode shows the perils of trying to cooperate with management. Boeing and all other corporations are out to make as much profit as possible. Nothing else matters to them. They have no loyalty to any area or any particular group of workers. They will trample on workers’ rights, environmental regulations, or anything else that gets in their way.
Giving concessions just weakens the unions and whets the company’s appetite for more. If the unions do not fight this latest move, the company will continue to move production into non-union areas. The IAM and SPEEA lost their chance in 2009-12 to prevent the first move to South Carolina. If they compound that failure this time, it will open the way for further moves. The more that production moves out of unionized plants in Washington state, the harder it will be for the union to fight Boeing’s anti-union drive.
Another clear lesson is that workers cannot depend on government officials to protect them. In spite of reservations now, Inslee and the Democrats laid the basis for the current debacle. They caved into Boeing, passing tax breaks in less than two weeks. Even now, several Democratic officials think Inslee is being too harsh toward Boeing!
Workers need to organize independently of their union leadership to demand that their unions fight back. The bosses’ parties will continue to support the bosses’ interests. Workers need their own political party!
Steve Leigh is a member of the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and of the Revolutionary Socialist Network.