Different issues, different leadership, different styles, different times and trends.
Hardly anything about the strike by Boeing Co. production workers that began Friday looks much like previous walkouts by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
The strike vote Thursday was 78 percent, compared with 70 percent to walk out in 1989.
No talks are scheduled, and a settlement is likely to be more elusive than in strikes of 48 days in 1989, 45 days in 1977, 19 days in 1965 and 140 days in 1948, said David Olson, a political science professor and former chairman of the University of Washington Center for Labor Studies.
“Only a fool would predict that this would be a two-week strike or a two-month strike,” Olson said.
“I would guess longer and (with) more resolve than there was in 1989 on the part of the union,” agreed Charles Bergquist, a history professor who is current chairman of the labor studies center.
Job security and medical benefits rank well ahead of pay among the top issues. The union’s top two negotiators, both new to the table, represent fewer but more seasoned and angry members.
Moreover, Bergquist said, “organized labor has hit bottom and is starting to rebound from the losses of the 1980s.”
A five-year slump in aircraft orders has been reversed at Boeing, but foreign customers who account for 70 percent of the sales are increasingly demanding pieces of the subcontracting pie in exchange for new orders.
Boeing, determined to retain its 60 percent share of the world jetliner market, has rejected consideration of union demands for a chance to retain or regain jobs by bidding against subcontractors.
“They’re having to do that because of their nationalistic customers,” Olson said.
Unlike money issues, which can be compromised by splitting the difference, “this (job security and subcontracting) issue is not bargainable in a traditional sense,” he said.
The Machinists represent about 23,500 workers in the Puget Sound area, 7,200 in Wichita, Kan., 1,200 in Gresham, Ore., and 293 in Spokane.
Union leaders blame outsourcing, the subcontracting of parts production once handled by Boeing to other companies in the United States and overseas, for much of the decline.
Union president George Kourpias hammered on that theme repeatedly in visits to picket lines Friday in Everett, Seattle and Renton, and Saturday in Gresham and Wichita.
“When you turned down that contract, we said ‘No, no, no,’ to that company,” Kourpias told a rally in Gresham. “We’re going to continue to say ‘no’ until they come to the bargaining table and negotiate a just agreement for our workers.”
In Wichita, after pickets forced non-striking employees to wait as long as 3-1/2 hours to enter the complex Friday, Boeing obtained a court injunction to limit picketing at plant gates and bar obstruction of traffic.
The strike in 1989 was the most successful to date for the machinists at Boeing. Compared with Boeing’s last offer before the walkout, most workers recouped the earnings they lost in the walkout by the time the three-year pact expired in 1992.
Layoffs have largely eliminated low-seniority workers since then, so almost all of those affected by the current strike can remember walking picket lines, union spokeswoman Connie Kelliher said.
“Those who have been on strike are a lot better prepared than those who have never been on strike,” said Ross Rieder, a Snohomish County Labor Council organizer and former president of the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association.
Meanwhile, discord within union ranks has eased on two fronts.
Facing growing opposition within District Lodge 751, which covers the Puget Sound area, Tom Baker decided not to seek re-election to a fourth four-year term in 1992. The next year he went to prison after pleading guilty to embezzlement.
Baker favored expensive, tailored suits, took the lead at news conferences and union rallies at contract time and tangled openly with Justin Ostro, the union’s western regional vice president and nominally the lead negotiator.
Ostro has retired and is being replaced at the table by Robert Gregory, assistant to the new western vice president, Lee Pierson.
Baker’s successor, Bill Johnson, appears perpetually rumpled, squirms in suits as if they were straitjackets and seems comfortable deferring to Gregory in public appearances.
After the contract vote, Johnson led a fist-pumping charge from the counting room with cheers of “strike, strike,” but Gregory announced the results.
“It is possible to lead unions without having a massive ego, and I think Johnson is an example of that,” Rieder said. “It seems to me that (the Gregory-Johnson team) is working quite well.”
Unlike 1989, when both sides entered the strike from positions of strength amid unprecedented aerospace industry prosperity, the climate this time is far more unsettled.
For the union, Olson said, the question is, “Will this militancy be able to hold? Will they be able to sustain this?”
Airlines are still not especially eager to take delivery of new planes, so Boeing is “not at all unhappy to see this down time,” he added. “The corporate side can benefit from situations like this, but they can only benefit for so long.”
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