Boeing contract secures coveted plane, but deals blow to labour influence
Union members have approved an 8-year contract extension with Boeing to build the 777X and the plane's composite wings.
SEATTLE – A new labour contract that was approved in a close vote by Boeing machinists secures a major airplane contract for the Seattle area, but it also moves workers away from pensions.
National union leaders, the state’s governor and the company all hailed Friday contract approval, which defied local union bosses, as a vital boost to the region’s economy.
The tight count exposed deep rifts in the once-powerful union, but with plenty of states lining up to give Boeing exactly what it wanted to get work on the 777X, the aerospace giant had a tremendous advantage.
“It shows that even a strong local is vulnerable and has a limited defensibility to slow the tide of concessions that has been going on across the country,” said Leon Grunberg, a sociology professor at the University of Puget Sound who co-authored a book, “Turbulence: Boeing and the State of American Workers and Managers.”
He added, “This is happening with a company that’s doing very well financially.”
Members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers approved an 8-year contract extension by 51%, a turnaround from November when the same workers voted down a previous offer by 67%.
Wilson Ferguson, president of a local unit of District 751, said the vote diminished the local union’s power since it conceded some hard-fought benefits they won’t be getting back.
Foes of the contract opposed the idea of freezing the machinists’ pensions and moving workers to a defined-contribution savings plan.
“The very fact that Boeing was making these demands in the first place just has to be seen as discouraging for average workers,” said Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at the University of Washington. “This is a very strong union, and if you have a strong union, being forced into givebacks of this sort … then you can just imagine how little leverage other workers have when negotiating,” he added.
Local union officials had urged their 30,000 members to oppose the deal, arguing that the proposal surrendered too much at a time of company profitability. They had opposed taking a vote at all but were overruled by national leaders in the Machinists union.
A number of political leaders, including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, praised the vote, which supporters said keeps thousands of well-paying jobs in the state and solidifies Boeing’s presence in the Seattle area, where the company built its first airplanes nearly a century ago.
Inslee, a Democrat, said the vote secured Washington state’s “future as the aerospace capital of the world.”
Some local elected officials had said there was no other choice but to vote “yes.”
Grunberg, the University of Puget Sound professor, said, “Everybody was scared about Boeing moving this huge new production out of state, so I think there was tremendous anxiety about losing this production.”
More than 20 other states moved recently to bid for work on the 777X, an updated version of Boeing’s bestselling 777. Boeing has said the 777X is expected to carry as many as 400 passengers and be more fuel efficient than the 777.
US Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the decision wasn’t an easy one and workers’ concerns about income and retirement security were legitimate. But the Democrat also said the agreement guarantees “thousands of good-paying jobs and billions of dollars in economic growth.”
Boeing Commercial Airplanes President and CEO Ray Conner said Friday that “the future of Boeing in the Puget Sound region has never looked brighter.”
Lynne Dodson, with the Washington State Labor Council, the largest labour group in the state with 450,000 members, didn’t see Friday’s vote as an indication of declining union influence. “It’s an indication of just how far Boeing will go,” she said. “It’s more a reflection of corporate greed than of union power.”
“This was a turning point in the labour movement. Pensions were hard-fought battles to get in the first place. Once they’re gone, they’re gone,” said Ferguson
“Their fear and intimidation worked,” he added.
©The Canadian Press