by Jason Redrup
Earlier this year, members at District 751 endured a devastating loss to our solidarity and the benefits we had fought decades to secure because of the actions of our International leadership. If what happened at 751 goes unchallenged, it will set a dangerous pattern for other contracts across the country. My goal is to ensure what happened in Seattle, doesn’t happen to another group of Machinists.
Even though we had a contract in place through 2016 and our District strongly objected, our International ordered a vote on a concessionary offer be held on Jan. 3rd knowing thousands of union members would be on vacation and unable to vote. This vote was ordered after many members had already begun their holidays, and the International refused to move the vote just one business day. With nearly 8,000 members not voting, we are now forced to live under a contract that eliminated pensions for all, more than doubles health care costs, slows wage growth by 75 percent and keeps us from returning to the bargaining table until 2024. This came not when Boeing was hurting, but enjoying record profits and backlogs.
To fully understand what happened, you need to hear the whole story. The Jan. 3rd revote was imposed on us by our International leadership. After the first vote on November 13, when the workers at Boeing rejected the contract by a two-thirds majority, we were called back to have conversations with the company. But we were brought back under false pretenses.
Initially we were told that the company wanted to hear why workers rejected the contract, but it turned out that there was a bigger agenda. Later that evening, Rich Michalski (Tom Buffenbarger’s selected lead negotiator who retired from the IAM in July 2013 and was hired through his new firm Certus Capitol Consulting) indicated Boeing had retreated on the pension issue and wanted the union to make a new offer the next day. 751 reps returned to meet with Boeing only to learn that pension was not off the table. Boeing rejected any union proposal that contained pensions. Rich Michalski insisted we give Boeing 24 hours to produce another offer, which they did.
The company’s new offer did not move in any substantial way from the first offer rejected on Nov. 13. There were just minor changes — a second bonus 6 years from now and a $500 more in dental 6 years from now with another $500 10 years from now. But really, in the opinion of the leadership of our local union, there were no real changes to the offer that the members had already rejected.
Tom Wroblewski, our District 751 president, told our members that we’re not going to vote on an offer that did not significantly improve upon what we had already turned down. After we went back and forth a few times with the company on this matter, we both realized we had no agreement. We shook hands, and that was that. The last question we asked the company was, Did they expect us to vote on the new offer? Ray Conner, the company’s CEO, said no, not unless we were willing to endorse and sell their latest offer. We were unanimous in our rejection of it. We left that room thinking we were done.
Less than 30 minutes after we left this meeting, we read in the Seattle Times that there was going to be a new vote on the last Boeing offer. This had been announced by Rich Michalski, the representative of IAM President Tom Buffenbarger.
A day or two before the Christmas shutdown of the plant — on Saturday, December 21 — we were told that the re-vote date had been set for January 3 – again announced in the Seattle Times by Rich Michalski, which Buffenbarger confirmed.
Despite our strong objections to voting again and after making numerous requests to our International leadership to move the vote date by one business day from Friday the 3rd of January to Monday the 6th, we were ordered to keep the vote on Jan. 3rd. We knew that between 2,500 and 3,000 union members were still on vacation and would not be back at work till that Monday.
Our International leadership insisted the vote date had to be on January 3 because in the middle of the following week Boeing would be making a big announcement.
The problem with the 3rd of January is that those 2,500 to 3,000 union members who were on vacation also happened to be, by and large, the members who had more time with the union, a lot of seniority, understood the pension issue, had been on strike numerous times, and knew what was at stake with the new supposedly improved contract. Because of the date the International selected, those union members were not given the opportunity to vote. A very high percentage of these members would have voted against the contract. With their participation, the contract would most likely have been defeated.
Keep in mind that the outcome of the vote itself was extremely close, with 51% of those who voted supporting the contract proposal (because nearly 8,000 didn’t vote – in reality 38 percent accepted the concessions we have to live with for the next 10 years).
The turnaround from the November 13 vote was the result of both the exclusion of a significant number of our members from the contract vote, but also of the campaign led by our International union of misinformation, extortion and threats (that airplane production was going to leave Puget Sound forever). The company, the politicians, the media and our International union put the full-court press on the membership to vote in support of the contract. Yet despite all these pressures, what’s amazing is how close the vote was.
A lot of our members did change their vote, but we had thousands of members who weren’t allowed to vote. Again, I believe the outcome would have been different had the vote been held on the date we proposed.
In the end, this was a very destructive contract. It set us back 75 years in our collective bargaining, eliminating our pensions, more than doubling our medical costs, freezing the starting wages at Boeing to what in eight or nine years will be a minimum wage, and more. And we will not have the ability to negotiate a starting wage for the four lowest grades; they will be frozen for almost a decade. For an airline worker — which is supposed to be a highly skilled job — this is outrageous.
One last thing about the vote on January 3. I have heard it said that the vote was democratic because the International made a concession to us when they allowed workers on vacation to vote by absentee ballot, something we had never done. Details of this process were not even announced until December 26, when many were already out of town. Again, despite our strong opposition to the January 3 vote, we had made this proposal in an attempt to give those members who were not in the area a chance to weigh in.
But this did not work. Putting aside the fact that by casting an absentee ballot workers were not able to discuss collectively in a union setting or on the shop floor the details of the new proposal by the company, the fact is that only a very small number of members sent in their votes.
People on vacation were not necessarily near a computer and therefore were not notified that a new vote was scheduled on January 3. Also, because this was a totally new voting process, many people were suspicious of it. For example, you had to scan your photo ID, meaning your driver’s license, and people said, “Hey, I’m not giving my personal information out on a computer!”
The claim that everyone was notified and had the right to cast their vote is blatantly and demonstrably false. Our members have raised this matter in numerous National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaints. If this is allowed to stand, it’s a dagger against every union contract in this country.
Of course, you cannot separate the undemocratic character of the vote from the concessionary character of the contract. Our International union insisted that this was not a concessionary deal; they said that with the changes made by the company in December this was now an “industry-leading” contract.
This is also blatantly false. It is so beyond the pale.
Over the extended period of this new contract, our members will be effectively experiencing a pay cut. Our members will not have income security in their retirement. There will be fewer workers in the plant at the end of the contract, as the new contract introduces provisions to allow for outsourcing our jobs. To say this is a good contract is just simply a lie.
It’s important for the labor movement across the country to understand that this Boeing contract in Washington state is detrimental to all of labor. Our contracts up here have been the bellwether to measure others against. Our members have fought very hard and struck — in 2005 and 2008 — for pensions and for rights benefiting people who don’t even work here.
Now the road is clear for the bosses to get rid of pensions for public and private sector unions nationwide. When you go out and try to organize a new shop, you’ll be told, “Hey, the Machinists gave up their pensions, why do you want to fight for pensions?” We are not just talking pensions for new hires, but giving up pensions for all Machinists under this Boeing contract in 2016.
Also, keep in mind that this is not a company that was going bankrupt; it’s a company that’s extremely profitable, with record sales and profits.
And there’s another thing: Re-opening the contract as they did is another dagger at the heart of the labor movement. We are still under contract till 2016. By reopening the contract, the company took away our ability to strike the company if we disagreed with the contract. They literally put a gun to our heads, and we had no way to fight back.
Our membership was put in an unbearable situation with their threats — either you vote for this, or you’re all going to lose your jobs. What company in the United States would not love to do this to any and all organized workers?
Jason Redrup, an elected Business Representative in IAM District 751 at Boeing. He represents 2,500 workers on the 787 line at the Everett facility. He is currently one of the candidates for vice president of the International union on the IAM Reform slate headed by Jay Cronk.