In a move that strikes yet another blow to democracy and the living standards of working Americans, Boeing forced major givebacks on its 30,000 union employees in the state of Washington while simultaneously pulling off what may be the biggest welfare rip-off in the nation’s history. Confronted with company threats to move production of a huge new project out of state, workers reluctantly voted by an extremely narrow margin to give up defined pensions in exchange for risky 401(k) retirement plans. Thus Boeing, which earned $3.9 billion in profits in 2012, joins the long and growing list of major corporations around the country that have successfully eliminated defined pensions in order to dramatically increase profits.
In addition to the pension takeaways, the agreement includes a new stipulation that allows the company to contract out union work. The national office of the International Association of Machinists joined the company in a classic case of “vote and vote again until you get it right” by forcing the second vote even though the local union and 67% of those who voted in November opposed the deal. Moreover, the IAM national scheduled the second vote on January 2-3 when many workers were using vacation days to tack extra time off onto the end of the annual Christmas/New Year’s shutdown. Predictably, turnout dropped precipitously as there was no possibility for in-plant discussion of the company’s demands and possible strategies for resistance because of the shutdown.
The aerospace industry is one of the last in the United States where workers are able to make wages to enter the most-trumpeted, rapidly disappearing “middle” class. With this move, however, Boeing has announced that it is determined to see that aerospace workers knuckle under to its every demand or see their jobs moved elsewhere. It is the same strategy corporate elites used against steel, rubber and autoworkers, with disastrous consequences. In many instances, employers forced one concession after another while dangling the threat of job flight overhead, then closed up shop anyway. With the added clause in the revised contract about non-union outsourcing, it’s perfectly reasonable to conclude that Boeing also has a not-so-long-term plans to bust the union.
What makes this case all the more galling is that the takebacks worth billions to Boeing came at the same time the company was extorting $8.7 billion in handouts from Washington’s governor and state legislature. This, too, was accomplished with threats of relocation and follows a long tradition of state welfare to Boeing worth tens of billions of dollars. It is one more of countless examples that underscore how the philosophy the Super Rich and their government and media flacks espouse of “free markets” and “market discipline” is a colossal sham. The Super Rich love welfare as long as it’s exclusively for themselves and they abhor markets except when applied to the 99.9 percent.
The disgraceful conduct of the IAM national office cries out for Boeing workers and the working class as a whole to confront serious questions regarding collective bargaining and the union bureaucracy. Bureaucrats like IAM president Tom Buffenbarger who earn in excess of $300,000 per year have interests that conflict with those of the workers they purport to represent and often mesh nicely with those of corporate elites. In addition, the fulcrum of the union bureaucracy’s political strategy remains, even after so many beatdowns, supporting the Democrats — Democrats like Washington Governor Jay Inslee and the majority of the legislature that approved the $8.7 billion Boeing handout and pushed hard for the takebacks.
Perhaps of greater significance for building the kind of militant movement we need, workers have for decades been saddled with no-strike clauses in their contracts, no-strike clauses that union bureaucrats who wholeheartedly share the business class’s desire for a tame workforce happily agree to. The no-strike clause in the Boeing/IAM contract came into play because the company’s demands for pension surrender came in the middle of a contract, thus depriving the workers of their most potent weapon. In a society with a long history of violent repression of workers by the business class, strikes and other forms of labor militancy are most responsible for the advances made. Surrendering the right to strike has dramatically hastened the decline in the reversal of many of those advances.
There is nothing immutable about no-strike clauses; they can be bargained out of collective bargaining agreements as sure as they were inserted. That will take some doing but one certainty is that it will never happen until we begin to push the question. It’s also time to revive the issue of plant closure legislation to protect both workforce and community, an issue that arose in many places in the late 1970’s and quickly died. Given the burgeoning worker-owned coop movement, such legislation could be linked to promoting the idea that it’s both reasonable and beneficial to push for the right of communities and workers to assume control of plants that employers deem not sufficiently profitable. Among other examples from history, we can take inspiration from how little national discussion there was about wealth inequality prior to Occupy.
Green, socialist and other radical parties and candidates can make plant closure legislation part of their campaigns while within unions, rand and file activists can challenge continued inclusion of no-strike clauses. In many ways, history is on our side, not against us. We can, for example, draw inspiration from the heyday of the Industrial Workers of the World when the Wobs recognized that most every sentence that’s added to a collective bargaining agreement serves, and is designed to serve, to restrict worker self-activity. Militant workers of the 1930’s who lay the foundation for the CIO such as those whose appear in Alice and Staughton Lynd’s great book Rank and File likewise bitterly opposed restrictions on strikes that John L. Lewis and the Roosevelt Administration forced upon them.
If the people of the United States are going to turn back the relentless class warfare the Super Rich are waging against us, we are going to have to organize on many fronts. Within unions, rank and filers are going to have to go beyond workplace contractualism and add eliminating no-strike clauses, management prerogative clauses and perhaps even exclusive representation to the agenda or union reform will continue to end up looking like Arnold Miller and Ron Carey. Such demands are a perfect complement to direct action, where we again have a wealth of history on our side, what with the Freedom Riders of 1961, the sit-down strikers of 1936-37 and so many more. The Occupy movement that so electrified the country and brought awareness about corporate class warfare to millions of people was a start; we must now find ways to bring that approach and spirit to higher levels and into workplaces and communities everywhere.
Andy Piasci is a long-time activist and award-winning author who writes for CounterPunch and many other publications and websites. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.