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Machinists’ choice: Strikes or jobs

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on July 11, 2009 at 4:59 pm with No Comments »
July 11, 2009 4:59 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Now it’s official: Boeing wants a no-strike guarantee from its unions, or it’s going to create a second 787 plant elsewhere.

Boeing hasn’t said it out loud. But U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks and Gov. Chris Gregoire confirmed last week that they’d heard as much from the company. We doubt they’re making it up.

The ball – or is it a bomb? – is now in the court of the International Association of Machinists and the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace.

The machinists – the fighting machinists, as they style themselves – are sounding more conciliatory than they did during last year’s punishing strike: "We are working to improve our relationship with Boeing," said District 751 President Tom Wroblewski in a statement, "and the Machinists Union has made several overtures to that effect. Improving the relationship to bring about a different result in bargaining is a priority. We plan to dedicate a lot of time and resources to this effort."

It would been nice if more "time and resources" had been dedicated to the relationship before the 53-day strike, which contributed to the company’s costly and embarrassing delay in delivering the 787.

The truth is, Boeing has both the unions and the Puget Sound region over a barrel – and it’s about time somebody but Boeing realized it. The company didn’t just buy the Vought fuselage assembly plant in South Carolina last week; it positioned itself to build on a large piece of vacant land next to it.

The site is well-suited for final assembly of the 787. If Boeing decides to start building airliners there, it will be because it has written off the Puget Sound region as too expensive, and the machinists and engineers as too strike-happy. It will be unlikely to assemble another new line of jets in Western Washington. Ever.

The company is weary of strikes. Over the last 20 years, it has experienced a strike by either the machinists or engineers every few years. Among the machinists in particular, strike fever has become part of the culture. Many members appear to assume that they can’t do business with the company without regular walkouts.

Last year, the machinists rejected a contract offer that most Carolinians would have salivated over. Members were already making more than $55,000 a year, on average, not counting overtime. Boeing offered 9 percent in wage increases over three years, plus 2.8 percent for "cost of living," plus a 5 percent lump sum payment.

One of the union’s nonnegotiable demands was that Boeing continue giving new hires the privilege of retiring at 55 with medical benefits. That privilege is virtually unheard of elsewhere in the private sector – except, of course, in Detroit’s collapsing auto industry.

Many unions flourish without routinely resorting to the nuclear option. At a certain point, the overuse of strikes is self-defeating – and the machinists passed that point years ago. If the company eventually shifts its jet production elsewhere, its workers could be left with wonderful contracts promising great wages, medical insurance and retirement benefits. Just no jobs.

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