Boeing Aircraft

New Boeing Contract Threatens Machinist Jobs

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St. Louis area Machinists recently approved a new three-year contract with Boeing Co. by a narrow margin. The workers’ main concerns were not over salary, or even health care, but the threats posed to seniority and job security by the encroachment of new job classifications. While the Machinists were able to thwart the worst of Boeing’s proposals at the bargaining table, the Boeing bosses have gotten their foot in the door to undermine job security and the seniority system. Like the saying goes, “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.”

The contract between Boeing and the 2,600 members of IAM District Lodge 837 will be binding until June 13, 2010. It was approved by a vote of 951 to 883. The general sentiment of the rank and file and the leadership is that the contract’s provisions on job classifications represent a threat to Machinist jobs. In response, many members of the local opposed the contract and were in favor of rejecting it, and if need be to prepare for strike action.

The last time DL 837 went on strike was in 1996, when the Machinists stayed out for 99 days, primarily over the issue of outsourcing and combining job classifications (that is, making one worker do the work of two or more). In 1996 there were 6,700 Machinists at Boeing – 4,000 jobs have been lost since then. The 1996 strike was a hard fought one, with the bosses bringing in 1,200 scabs, with company security harassing pickets on the line, and even following them home.

The Machinists fought back with a first-class effort to secure the solidarity of the local and national Labor Movement. Gate collections were taken at local auto plants for the striking Machinists, and Machinists at Northwest Airlines regularly took up solidarity collections at the national level. Solidarity marches and rallies further built up support from other unions and working people generally. Even today, in St. Louis area workplaces, you can still find “Back Mac!” bumper stickers tacked up. The memory of the 1996 strike is still relatively fresh.

When the contract vote tally was announced, many Machinists booed.  According to Chris Myrick, a 44-year old Boeing worker, “It’s not a money issue. It’s our job security. The new classifications scare a lot of people.”

The Boeing plants in the St. Louis area were taken over by the company after it bought McDonnell Douglas in 1997, which was then renamed Integrated Defense Systems. Boeing-IDS produces F/A-18 Hornet and F-15 jets for the military, as well as missiles and related components in two area plants. It employs 72,000 workers worldwide.

The new contract includes a general wage increase of 4 percent in the first year and 3 percent in the second, and new hires will remain in the Defined Pension Plan. On the other hand, health care premiums have gone up to 12 percent. Five new job classifications have been added in five different labor grades. These new classifications can do the same work as the traditional classifications.

Originally, the bosses not only wanted to add the new classifications, but they also wanted to put the new jobs on an even plane with the traditional ones in terms of shift preference. This was taken off of the table at the last minute. The contract limits the new classifications somewhat by mandating that the new classifications cannot be filled up with workers if one of the traditional classifications is in layoff status. All classifications, new and old, will have to share overtime distribution on an equal basis.

Boeing StrikeHowever, the fact remains: the new job classifications are a threat to Machinist jobs at Boeing. So why weren’t the IAM leaders able to keep this threat off the bargaining table? The vote to approve the contract was extremely close, and was not well-received by nearly half the membership. This shows the potential that existed for organizing a serious fight back against these attacks. This would mean preparing the membership for the possibility of a strike.

We can never forget that the interests of the bosses are completely opposed to ours. Corporate profits are based on exploiting our labor, and the bosses are always trying to increase their profits at the expense of our jobs, wages and benefits. We must approach every contract negotiation and indeed every workplace issue from this perspective. This means organizing within our unions to ensure that they serve their intended purpose: to defend our interests as workers.

Attacks on our job security and workplace seniority rights are part and parcel of the generalized attack on our working conditions. For more than 25 years, the bosses have conducted what could only be described as a massacre of union jobs in the U.S. By all available means, from plant closings, to downsizing in a million and one ways, they have forced us do more work for less money and fewer benefits.  The seniority system rewards workers for their lifetime of work, as much as is possible under capitalism. This  was one of the most important gains of the class struggle of the 1930s, and ever since, the bosses have been trying to erode it.

The whittling away of seniority allows the bosses to “divide and conquer” a workplace by paying older workers one wage and younger workers another. They would rather employ a young, inexperienced worker at a low wage than keep an older, experienced worker at a higher wage. They do this to divide workers by playing one group against the other. By creating separate job classifications that do the same work as established classifications, the bosses’ aim is just to get one group of workers to do the same work for less money. It’s a Trojan horse.

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