On December 5, 2011, we published We ARE the Union: Democratic Unionism and Dissent at Boeing by Dana Cloud, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Texas, Austin. Dr. Cloud discusses labor unrest at Boeing and how a 1995 strike benefitted rank-and-file workers.
Q: What was the main impetus for the strike at Boeing in 1995?
A: In 1995, the company was enormously profitable, having just purchased McDonnell Douglass. Hundreds of orders for planes were outstanding. Yet the Company wanted concessions on wages, health care benefits, pensions, and work hours–including demanding rotating 12-hour shifts that are incredibly disruptive to family life. Knowing that the Company was flush, ordinary workers felt moved to strike, but their leadership cozied up with their employers to craft an unnecessarily concessionary contract. After surprising the Company, the IAMAW (International Association of Machinists), and the media with their rejection of a second bad contract offer, workers went out for 69 days and won nearly all of their demands.
Q: How did the union negotiate the gulf between what the workers wanted and what Boeing was willing to offer?
A: The IAMAW did not negotiate that gulf–its leaders stayed clearly on the side of the Boeing Company and was willing to basically accept what Boeing was offering without a fight. It took the workers independent action to force the IAMAW to act like the representative of the workers. This is an all too common practice on the part of mainstream union leaders across US industry since WWII. During this period union leaders, occupying an ambivalent position between worker and management operated on tacit agreements with employers not to strike in exchange for the assumption of job security. But employers violated that pact beginning in 1973–and the unions did not modify their stance accordingly, so that now unions bargain away the rights and wages of workers even when a company like Boeing is immensely profitable.
Q: There were dissident factions within the union that wanted the union to be more responsive to workers’ demands. Is this type of dissent typical in union history or a more recent development?
A: Democratic union agitators and organizations have always been present in the union movement pushing for greater accountability from their leaders and generating upward pressure on both union and company. Three notable examples are the efforts of postal workers in 1970 in a national wildcat (unauthorized) strike, the rise of the black-worker-led Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement in Detroit in the 1960s, and the rise of Teamsters for a Democratic Union in the 1990s. These countervailing pressures have always been necessary to hold union leaders’ and management’s feet to the fire, but are even more urgent now in the era of neoliberal privatization. Demands for an increasingly leaner, scattered, and non-unionized labor force have imperiled workers around the world.
In this climate, union leaders have created and heralded “partnerships” with employers, enacting joint training and safety institutes. But as one of my informers warned me, the appeal to “jointness” means that “the employees are “getting the joint.”
Q: You spoke to Boeing workers in Wichita and Seattle. Did you observe regional differences in how the workers at each location approached the strike?
A: The only regional differences came from the fact that in the Puget Sound, there were many thousands more workers in the union in a closed shop–which meant that every worker in the plants there was in the union, effectively uniting them in the power of a strike. In Wichita, KS (a “right-to-work” state), the workforce was not uniformly unionized and pressure on union workers was high to keep fellow workers from crossing picket lines. The strength of the workers in Seattle bolstered the power of those organized in Wichita. In terms of organizing strategy, there were some differences among the groups I studied, but they generally aren’t regional differences. In the Puget Sound, the long-term vision of David Clay and his Machinists for Solidarity organization was more moderate than those of the Unionists for Democratic Change and the New Crew–the militancy of the latter combined with the systematicity of the former could make for a formidable presence.
Q: Did the 1995 strike ultimately improve the plight of Boeing workers?
A: The strike was an unmitigated victory, as were strikes in 2005 and 2008. The workers won a shorter contract term, which means that they are not stuck with any bad provisions for an extended period and can use their leverage more frequently to win improvements in wages, benefits, and work conditions. They won assurances of job security, although those have obviously eroded as the IAMAW continues speaking the language of the Company in terms of competitiveness–when in fact there is little to no real competition. They retained great health care plans and pension plans and cost of living raises for retirees, all of which were and are continually on the chopping block. To the extent that Boeing workers have had it good, it is because they have been organized and fighting. The decentralization of Boeing production in numbers of non-union facilities threatens this capacity to fight. Workers must attempt to organize every one of the facilities where Boeing operates; the IAMAW should make a great push to make this happen as well.
Q: What was the most interesting thing that you learned while researching the book?
A: The most incredible thing is that you find people who sacrifice their money and time to make a difference, people who bear up under incredibly heavy workloads, exploitation, discrimination on the basis of race and gender, anti-gay harassment–and who still possess full consciousness of their interests and power as workers and who take risks to deploy that power. They are eloquent tellers of their own stories and powerful examples of how to fight. In other words, as we have also seen in Egypt, in Wisconsin, and across the US in the Occupy Movements, ordinary people can and do take their futures into their own hands.
Q: What advice would you offer future strikers at Boeing?
A: 1. To strike as long as it takes to defend short contract terms, job security language, cost of living raises for all employees and retirees, employee controlled health care plans, seniority rights, a wage structure without tiers, safety controls and all the rest.
2. To push union leaders to distance themselves from the Company and to enable workers to fight.
3. To be suspicious of joint programs.
4. To work hard to overcome differences of race, gender, sexuality, and so on to craft the strongest possible solidarity.
5. Know your history. When they tell you you can’t fight and win, that is a lie. When they tell you the Company is struggling, that is a lie. When union leaders say that workers have to take concessions, that’s a lie. When mainstream media tell workers that it’s the unions’ fault that the economy crashed, that’s a lie.
6. Build lasting democracy organizations inside unions that can weather the swells of activism. Make these organizations about growing numbers of class-conscious, critical rank and file members rather than run to win union elections, which are rigged, and which gets you ostracized, harassed, and threatened. Train up new layers of leaders so as not to burn out. Charge dues to cover the expenses of running an organization. Use that organization to agitate at every available moment about the Company’s profitability and the workers’ power, contract in and contract out. Go for numbers rather than exploiting legal loopholes.
7. Tell your stories to inspire others. Let scholars and activists know that you know that you are not ignorant of your own strength.