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What Boeing Machinists' Rejection Means For Labor

caption: At the heart of the debate: The Boeing 777X jetliner (a prototype).
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At the heart of the debate: The Boeing 777X jetliner (a prototype).
Boeing handout.

In the hours after Boeing machinists overwhelmingly voted down an eight-year contract, a theme emerged: The machinists view themselves as a family that could not vote for a contract that would hurt future generations.

Tracy Smith, a machinist with Boeing for 28 years, summed up the sentiment outside the union hall in South Park on Wednesday night:

“I could take the early retirement benefits that are coming,” Smith said. “But I’m a unionist and I would never sell out people coming in behind me to divide our union, where we get something but we take something away from the people who are going to be working right next to us in five years. I’ll never do that, it’s like selling your soul.”

The morning after the vote Jeffrey Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, issued a statement along those lines.

The vote, he said, is a reflection of “feeling extorted by the company to vote on a proposal that cuts across the grain of deeply held values passed down from grandparents to parents to sons, daughters, nieces and nephews.”

It is unthinkable, he continued, “for members to sell out a secure retirement future for current and future workers, many of whom are family members.”

But outsiders, state lawmakers in particular, viewed the machinists as short-sighted. By voting no, the machinists might have kissed away Washington state’s chance at building the 777X jetliner – costing the state between 20,000 and 60,000 possible jobs.

Within minutes of the vote, the aerospace giant released a statement saying it would consider other locations for the assembly of the 777X.

The machinists called it a bluff, but Jake Rosenfeld, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington who studies labor, said that Boeing may not have been negotiating, but rather, looking for a way out of Washington.

“If the company was serious about negotiating I think they would have been more explicit that this is a proposal, not a non-negotiable,” Rosenfeld told KUOW.

He said the vote, and the bitterness wrapped around it, reflect a nationwide decline in the power of organized labor.

“This is a story we’ve seen across industry after industry,” Rosenfeld said. “Aerospace has been a real laggard, but we’re starting to see that ground shift as well. And so this is the story of the manufacturing middle class and its decline throughout the second half of the 20th century into the 21st.”

Weakening Of Union Positions

Philip Dine, author of "State of the Unions", said aerospace labor shouldn’t be compared with the auto industry, or other unions attached to failing businesses.

“The auto industry was in decline for a lot of reasons: poor management, competition from foreign competitors, changing consumer habits in the American public,” Dines said. “None of that is contained in the aerospace industry. Aerospace has been and remains the largest American exporting sector; it’s a huge industry, it’s doing well, it doesn’t depend on the proclivities of the American public because it sells to airlines or the Pentagon or foreign governments.”

But he said that although Washington state, which has a strong history of organized labor, is faring better than the nation overall, it is in decline. And as companies apply more pressure to its workforce, unions often agree to strip benefits that were once a given – such as pensions and robust health care plans.

“Unions are part of the overall economy and we’re things are shifting in general in that direction and more specifically labor is in a vulnerable position,” Dine said. “Because of the time of the labor movement and the growing weakness in labor.”

The machinists refused to bend, however. Under the proposed eight-year contract, Boeing would stop contributing to the machinists’ pensions in 2016, and workers’ health care costs would increase. If the machinists had approved the contract, they would have received a $10,000 bonus by the holidays.

Challenge From Right-To-Work States

Scott Hamilton, an aviation consultant at the Issaquah-based Leeham Company, said Boeing has been pressuring the state and the unions, constantly reminding both that there are right-to-work states like South Carolina that don’t require their workers to join unions. In Washington, workers in union shops must join and pay dues, with very few exceptions.

“Boeing is always going to be able to hold South Carolina over Everett’s head, or Renton’s head,” Hamilton said. “Boeing is always going to be able to hold a right-to-work state over Washington’s head.”

Washington lawmakers tried to sweeten the deal earlier this week by extending $8.7 billion in tax breaks through 2040 to Boeing – if the company promises to keep production of the 777X in the state. It is reportedly the largest corporate subsidy in United States history.

But Boeing’s machinists have a good rebuttal, Hamilton said: “The workforce in Everett knows how to build airplanes, they know how to repair airplanes, they know how to improve production,” he said. “South Carolina doesn’t know how to do that stuff.”

KUOW's Bill Radke and Ruby de Luna contributed reporting.

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