Texas Machinists Take On Lockheed Martin

On April 23, 3,650 employees of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, and members of the International Association of Machinists District Lodge 776, went on strike. The union had entered into negotiations to renew their 3-year contract a month earlier. Management’s “last, best, final” offer was an insult. The contract would introduce two-tier retirement, abolishing pensions for new hires and replacing them with a market-based 401(k) scheme. It would also increase health care costs for all workers.

This bitter pill was hardly made palatable by management’s artificial sweetener—a $3,000 bonus for signing the deal, a 3 percent annual increase in base-pay every year, an $800 cost-of-living-adjustment, and a 14 percent increase in pension payments to existing employees on retirement. The idea is to buy off existing staff, then worsen conditions for new workers down the line. The union recognized the maneuver for what it was and the members voted 94% in favor of strike action. Thousands of workers then tirelessly picketed every one of over a dozen entrances at the Ft. Worth plant, 24/7, for what turned out to be a ten-week-long strike, the longest since a three-month strike in 1946. Not just in Ft. Worth, either, but hundreds of workers at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland also walked out and set up picket lines.

f35Lockheed Martin (LM) is the biggest defense contractor in the world. They employ 123,000 workers, and in 2011, took $2.6 billion in profits from $46.5 billion in net sales. Average pay for individual Ft. Worth workers is just over $60k per year, or about $29 per hour. The IAM as a whole represents 593,000 workers—far more than LM employs. But of 14,000 Lockheed employees at the Ft. Worth F-16/F-35 factory, only a few thousand are organized with Local 776, and these are divided into two different bargaining units, even though it’s the same union at the same worksites. This structure worked against the union before and during negotiations, and especially for the duration of the strike.

Indeed, after members of 776 had been on strike for four weeks, contracts for another 500 Ft. Worth Lockheed union workers expired. 70 Electrical Workers of IBEW Local 220 and 430 Office Workers of OPEIU Local 277, together with another 600 Machinists in a separate unit, ratified a deal almost identical to the one that Local 776 workers rejected. This division hurt their bargaining position and benefited the company, weakening the strike and undermining the workers’ confidence.

When the strike broke, a government agency called the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) came forward with an olive branch—“neutral mediation.” The conflict of interest is glaring: LM’s biggest customer is the Department of Defense! Indeed, the attacks on pensions and health care against which the workers struggled are a direct result of the DoD proposal to cut $1.6 billion from the F-35 program and reduce production by 179 planes over 5 years, without including any provisions to ensure the workers can transition to another field of socially beneficial production. Machinists rejected this “help” in resolving the dispute.

Starting with degrading takebacks, Lockheed moved quickly to intimidation and propaganda. In the run-up to the strike vote, a notice was posted on the company website explaining how to resign from the union: a clear case of antidemocratic meddling. Then, in the first days of the strike, workers called police after spotting company men staked out right outside their union hall—located directly across the street from a main gate at the Ft. Worth plant. Bosses also sent ominous letters to strikers who had taken loans out on retirement funds, implying they’d default, even though there’s a contractual moratorium in the event of a strike. So Local 776 filed Unfair Labor Practice charges with the NLRB. The Board, like the FMCS, is just another component of Lockheed’s biggest customer, the U.S. government. So it was no surprise when the Board dismissed the charges.

Since the company couldn’t beat the strike with threats and intimidation, they brought on scabs to undermine the strike. They cut an entire shift and enforced 10- and 12-hour days. LM hired dozens of poorly trained temp workers, moved employees from other locations around the country, and sent lower management to the shop floor to “fiddle around” (as one worker put it). They also benefited from the mass media’s narrative on the strike: a superficial treatment characterized by a subtle tone of hopelessness. With struggling workers facing shrinking bank accounts and growing bills, the company’s strategy began to take a toll. The Machinists had been outflanked by management, and the strike was being choked to death.

Lockheed Martin produces F-16, F/A-22, and F-35 JSF fighter jets; F-117 and U-2 spy planes; C-130 cargo planes; and P-3, S-3, T-5 and T-50 aircraft as well. The highly-skilled workers who make these aircraft—largely by hand, and many with decades of experience—are central to United States military power. They are therefore central to the whole balance of world imperialism. Uncle Sam projects his long shadow across the globe, and high-speed attack aircraft are a key aspect of the struggle to dominate in the interests of U.S. capitalism. During the strike, the company delivered three new F-16s to the monarchy in Morocco, that is, to the same government whose police are known for warrantless raids and torture, and who mercilessly beat peaceful demonstrators.

The LM Machinists stopped production and declared themselves to be “the last line of defense” (on a banner in front of the District Lodge), in an attempt to halt attacks on their health care and retirement, some of the best compensation for workers anywhere in Texas. This gives lie to the naïve stereotype that all workers in Texas and the defense industry generally are “conservative.” The GOP recently held its state convention in Ft. Worth and called Tarrant County “the most conservative county in Texas.” We hope so, as this strike shows that this conservatism can rapidly turn into its opposite!

With fearless determination, the Machinists of Local 776 had voted overwhelmingly to take on the billion-dollar giant, with only $150 per week in strike pay. But decades-old antiworker labor laws crafted by big business, divisions in the internal structure of the union, and above all, the union leadership’s lack of a class struggle analysis, strategy, and methods of fighting back all impeded a victory for the workers.

After hundreds of Machinists had broken ranks, the union sat down with Lockheed and federal mediators and reached a deal: Lockheed’s deal. 2,300 unionists voted 81% in favor, ending the stoppage. This contract was essentially the same as the one workers had walked out on over two and half months before. Workers’ frustrations, therefore, will only continue to build up. And when this contract expires in April 2015 it will likely be amid a climate of rising strikes and unionization, and growing rank-and-file militancy as austerity strangles the world working class.

Solidarity strikes, mass pickets and blocking scabs from work are illegal today because they are precisely the tactics which could have brought a great victory to Lockheed Martin employees. These laws are written by the rich to defend their interests. But as tensions within capitalism begin to boil, workers in North Texas and around the world will need to learn and apply these class struggle tactics which defy the law, if necessary, to completely shut down production and hit the bosses where it really hurts. Through their own experience, more and more workers will recognize the dire need for union organization and for a political party of our own, based on the unions. Ultimately, a Marxist analysis and methods will be needed as well, as there is no solution within the limits of capitalism.

Are you a communist?
Then apply to join your party!