This Union Is Organizing to Save Boeing From Itself

The Machinists are bargaining a contract with the airline giant for the first time in 16 years, and members are gearing up for strike votes this summer.

Don McIntosh

The exterior of the Boeing Company headquarters is seen on March 25, 2024 in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Many eyes will be on the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) this year as the union takes part in one of the most significant labor negotiations of recent times. Boeing is one of just two major commercial aircraft makers in the world. It’s an export powerhouse and a standard-bearer for American industrial and technological achievement. It’s also a company that’s overdue for a course correction. 

A terrifying Jan. 5 incident in which a door plug fell out of a two-month-old Boeing 737 over Portland isn’t even the latest. On March 7, a Boeing 777-200 lost a tire after takeoff from San Francisco. On March 9, former Boeing quality manager and whistleblower John Barnett, who had spoken out about safety issues at the company, was found dead of an apparent suicide that is being investigated by authorities. Previously, 346 people lost their lives in crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia in 2018 and 2019 when faulty sensors triggered an automated system in the 737 MAX that had not been disclosed to pilots. That system forced the jet’s nose down, which caused the crashes. 

In 2021, the company agreed to pay $2.5 billion to settle charges that it conspired to defraud Federal Aviation Administration inspectors and later cover up that fraud. Between its image problems and production delays that followed a disastrous decision to globalize and outsource production of its 787, Boeing has been losing market share to Airbus, its principal competitor.

We need to bargain and save them from themselves,” said Brandon Bryant, directing business representative at Machinists District Lodge W24 in Gladstone, Oregon. Bryant is taking part in the national negotiations with Boeing that began March 8. Boeing’s not doing really well. We think there’s a solid future ahead of us, but they have to partner with the IAM. We have to be the valuable stakeholders in this company to get them back to being successful.”

The national contract covers 32,000 members of IAM District Lodge 751 at Boeing plants in the Puget Sound and 1,200 members of District Lodge 63 at the Boeing plant in Gresham, Oregon. It’s set to expire Sept. 12, 2024, and IAM leaders say it’s not going to be like last time. 

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In fact, this is the first full-scale contract negotiation between IAM and Boeing in 16 years. Roughly half the current Boeing workforce has never been through union bargaining. The current contract was hammered out in 2008 after a 58-day strike. It was meant to be a four-year agreement, but since then, two multi-year contract extensions were bargained secretly between top IAM leaders and the company, without the usual union member surveys and participation. Both extensions came as Boeing engaged in a kind of hardball jobs blackmail against the union.

In 2011, after Boeing threatened to build its 737 MAX in other states, Machinists union members voted to extend their agreement by four years, thereby guaranteeing no strikes through 2016

Having flight-tested a strategy for using jobs blackmail to extort concessions, Boeing did it again in 2013. Union members are still steamed about how it went down. Boeing threatened to move production of its new 777X airliner out of Washington unless workers agreed to extend their contract by another eight years and make big concessions: give up their pension plan and accept a 401(k) instead; pay more for health insurance; limit raises to 1% every other year; and accept a two-tier pay scale in which new hires have a slower wage progression. 

Amid record turnout, workers voted that down Nov. 13, 2013, by more than 2-1. Boeing then dropped the two-tier proposal and demanded another vote. Leaders of Seattle-based District Lodge 751 didn’t think the changes were substantial enough to warrant a revote, but Thomas Buffenbarger, then national IAM president, stepped in and ordered a new ratification vote. He scheduled it for Jan. 3, 2014, when many workers were on vacation because of the plant’s annual holiday shutdown. IAM reported that it passed by 51% on the second vote.

Member anger over how the contract was extended led to a change in the Machinists constitution at the next convention. Now, Machinist officers aren’t allowed to negotiate a contract modification or extension unless members in the bargaining unit have specifically voted to authorize that.

Ten years after the controversial extension, IAM leaders at Boeing say they’re determined to reverse the concessions made then, starting with restoration of the pension. They’re proposing a three-year contract with wage increases of more than 40%. They also want an end to mandatory overtime on the weekends. They want to shorten the length of time it takes a worker to progress from new hire to the top of the pay scale, from six to four years. And in light of the disastrous series of mishaps, the union is calling for more quality inspectors and more union input into quality control. Significantly, they also want Boeing to retire its pattern of jobs blackmail and commit to building its next airplane in the Puget Sound. 

The 40-plus-member union bargaining team presented all that to the 20-plus-member Boeing bargaining team at the inaugural contract negotiation session March 8, held at the District Lodge 751 hall in Seattle. The company will take several weeks to evaluate the proposal, at which point the two teams will break into subcommittees to negotiate different parts of the contract.

Bargaining is likely to heat up in August after union members take strike votes on July 17. District Lodge 751 will have a mass strike authorization meeting at the Seattle Mariners stadium. Local Lodge 63 will have its meeting the same day at Mt. Hood Center, an event venue in Boring, Oregon.

We think that there’s a pathway to get a deal here without a strike,” Bryant said. We are not negotiating to go on strike. We’re negotiating to get a fair respectable deal that is beneficial not only to our members, but the company also, one that the committee can recommend. If we have to strike, we’re ready though.”

This story first appeared in Northwest Labor Press, where Don McIntosh is the editor.

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Don McIntosh is the editor of Northwest Labor Press.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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