40 days that shook the world of engineering:

A history of the Boeing engineers' strike in 2000

by Phil, Seattle
(from Communist Voice #24, June 14, 2000)

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. Today the workforce comprises professional employees as well as workers, and among the workers there is a labor aristocracy, whose better or more secure position particularly predisposes them towards the reformist stands of the pro-capitalist labor union leaders (labor bureaucracy), as well as a broader mass of workers. In the future, such divisions will exist too, but there are major changes going on in what occupations will occupy these ranks, or even end up as working class jobs and not professional ones. With technical progress wiping out some occupations and adding new ones, with the neo-liberal offensive against the conditions of the working people, and with the results of various attempts of the working people to defend themselves, the numerical weight of different sections of the workforce is changing, and the status which each occupation has is also changing. The technical level of many types of work has increased, while a large section of workers find themselves stuck more firmly than ever at the very bottom of the occupational ladder. Various of the professional strata and of the better-off workers are finding themselves thrown back down in the direction of the mass, as their education and training no longer set them apart as far as before, or as attempts to restrict access to their job category break down, while other new privileged strata are arising. How far these trends will go, and how working people will respond to these changes, will help shape the class struggles of the future. The Boeing strike this year was not only one of the big strikes of this period, but gave these engineers and technical workers their first major experience of such a struggle. The detailed article below by Phil gives the background to this strike, as well as a narrative of its events. It provides a dramatic picture of the Boeing engineering and technical workers caught in the middle of some of these trends. --Joseph Green

Subheads:
How the Boeing engineers are organized
History of the three contracts since 1989
The merger and subsequent attacks on salaried workers
The mass movement for a strike gathers energy
The strike begins
The company continues to adopt a hard-line attitude
The AFL-CIO takes an interest in the strike
Lessons of the strike

Text:
. The strike of the Boeing engineers and technical workers, which began on Feb. 9, 2000, and lasted until March 20, was the largest strike of "white-collar" workers in the history of the U.S. labor movement. In spite of their previous history as a docile and privileged section of the U.S. working class, the Boeing engineers and technical workers have become involved in a struggle which exhibited a mass character from its very beginnings. And none of this would have happened had not activists at the base been willing to go head-to-head against not only the giant Boeing monopoly but also against the cowardly and thoroughly bourgeois union leaders. The example which it sets, and several of the lessons to be learned from the strike, can encourage the struggles of many other sections of the modern-day US working-class movement.

. For generations, the engineering and technical sections of the US. working class have been unable to adopt forms of collective struggle against their employers because of the relative privileges afforded by their education and because of the individualistic psychology arising from their role in the workforce. But large-scale proletarianization of these workers has been going on because of the increasingly widespread nature of technical and scientific work, and the economic differences between the engineering and technical workforce and the rest of the working class have been eroded. The result has been a growing willingness among these workers to understand that they, too, are part of the working class and that it is appropriate for them to also adopt forms of collective struggle and to use these forms to defend and advance their common interests. Now these developments have achieved a qualitative breakthrough, and the class nature of the antagonism between the working class and the capitalist class has become openly apparent, if only for a brief period, in this arena as well.

How the Boeing engineers are organized

. The Boeing engineers and technical workers in the Puget Sound area are organized into two bargaining units, one for the engineers and one for the technical workers. Their union is named SPEEA (which originally stood for Seattle Professional Engineering Employees Association, but now it stands for Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace). The engineers are "exempt" workers (exempted from federal labor-law overtime provisions), while the technicals are "non-exempt" workers (not exempted from these overtime provisions). There are also separate bargaining units in Wichita, Kansas, and Irving, Texas, and scattered groups of SPEEA-represented workers in other parts of the US (chiefly in Portland and Spokane). Until recently, SPEEA was entirely independent of the AFL-CIO, but last fall it became Local 2001 of the IFPTE (International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, AFL-CIO). The union works under open-shop contracts, and its membership was less than 50% of the total bargaining unit population for both units ever since the events of 1993 which will be related below.

. While the SPEEA constitution has established a leadership of the union composed of a representative Council and an Executive Board of seven members, real day-to-day power is exercised by a full-time paid staff headed by an Executive Director, currently a former Boeing engineer named Charles Bofferding III, who is appointed by the Board. In its role as the administrators of the contract between SPEEA and the Boeing Company, this paid staff is able to pursue its own agenda, which it usually puts ahead of the long-term interests of the union members. The number-one focus of the staff has been raising the union's dues-paying membership, because the amount of dues collected determines the operating budget of the union and the amount available for staff salaries and other expenses.

. This focus on raising the membership has led to a continual litany of "blaming the non-members" for all the ills of the union. It was common to hear Bofferding and much of the leadership excuse many of the less-than-satisfactory features of previous contracts with the plea that if only membership were higher, a better contract could be obtained. Membership drives were ongoing features of Council meetings, and the goal of making the non-members pay an "agency fee" was the Nirvana of Bofferding's exhortations about a good contract. Another focus has been the organizing of unorganized sectors of the Company, not so much for the benefits of organization, but for the increase in the dues which can be collected by the union.

. Ordinary capitalist trade unions are run by a bought-off bureaucracy which places its own interests ahead of those of the working class. This may be contrasted with the behavior of a revolutionary trade union, whose staff must be expected to work for the overall good of the class rather than narrow bureaucratic interests. Instead, the paid staff of a reformist labor union has a narrow focus on its own careerist interests. Without the effective, politically conscious, oversight of the rank-and-file, this staff will act as the real repository of power in the union. Its primary interest will be to obtain short-term, practical gains -- to establish a contract between the union members and the company and to administer the day-to-day details of adherence to that contract. The staff of a union justifies its existence by the services it renders to the members, and to do this, it must assure benefits above and beyond those ordinarily available on the labor market to unorganized employees. So it must be able to bring a contract to the members that is good enough to keep them as members, but not so good as to displease the company. This implies that the staff must have credibility with both management and the workers in order to perform these functions. It must act as an intermediary between the unionized workers and management, delivering a compliant workforce for a contractually agreed-upon price. It must be able to provide the workers with a way of letting off steam while still not allowing things to get to the point of an open conflict. This sets up its role as the saboteur of all militant working-class struggles. Because of its full-time involvement in day-to-day union business, the staff can gain extensive influence over the nominal union leadership and become a bureaucracy which controls all of the essential actions of the union. And under the present-day conditions of a low ebb in the working class movement, this union bureaucracy continuously blunts the class struggle and diverts it into reformist directions. Yet from time to time, this role as an intermediary is thrust aside as the antagonism between the workers and management breaks out into the open. And, as the economic features of the current overheated economy push the goal of maximum profits ever more into the forefront, it becomes more and more difficult for the union bureaucrats to accomplish their own goals without coming into open conflict with the company. The recent history of the engineering and technical workforce illustrates the manner in which this conflict develops and the role the union staff has played during these events.

History of the three contracts since 1989

. Until 1989, SPEEA had not had a contract dispute with the Boeing Company for many years. However, in that year, the contract as proposed by the Boeing Company did not include lump-sum ("bonus") payments for the last two years of the three-year engineers' contract. The technical unit and the factory workers (machinists) both received bonuses for all three years. The leadership, as usual, nevertheless recommended acceptance of this proposal, but it was rejected by a vote of the membership. During the next month, two rank-and-file picket sessions, which were covertly instigated by the local branch of the late Marxist-Leninist Party (MLP) (1), were held outside company headquarters in Seattle. These pickets raised demands not only for the missing bonus payments, but also for a cost-of-living allowance (COLA) and general wage increases (GWI) as well. (The engineers' contract only contains provisions setting the size of selective salary increase pools -- the sizes of individual salary increases are set at each manager's discretion.) The union and the company then agreed on a revised contract proposal which included the missing bonus payments, and the membership approved this contract.

. Over the next three years, discontent became more evident, and the demand for COLA became more widespread, because for many engineers the rate of selective increases barely kept up with inflation; and for those who got no raises at all, their real income actually shrank. Since the demand for COLA had originated due to rank-and-file sentiment, and not as a part of the SPEEA leadership's bargaining agenda, the leadership at first did not take it seriously, but ultimately postured as being in favor of the demand while using it as a bargaining chip for other non-monetary changes in the contract. When the next contract offer from the company in late 1992 did not include a COLA, the members of both units rejected these contracts in spite of recommendations by the leadership and voted strike authorization. After Christmas vacation, the company declared that an impasse existed in the negotiations and imposed the rejected contracts, refusing to negotiate any further. The union leadership at that point called a one-day protest strike which had fairly wide participation, but this was followed by fruitless negotiations with the Company and the same contract proposals were re-voted and accepted soon afterwards. During the next several months, membership declined steeply as many people quit the union, and it remained low until the current events began to develop.

. Three years later, in 1995, the Boeing company attempted to require the factory workers, represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), to pay part of their medical insurance premiums for the first time. Instead of accepting this contract, the IAM workers struck for 69 days. Meanwhile, the company had begun talks with the SPEEA negotiating team, and the team proposed a scheme of payments to workers who changed from the traditional (fee-for-service) medical care plan to health maintenance organizations (HMOs), as an alternative to requiring premium payments. When the company accepted this scheme as a way of settling the IAM strike, the strike came to an end. Following the settlement of the IAM strike, SPEEA negotiations resulted in contracts accepted by both units.

The merger and the subsequent attacks on the salaried workers

. Soon after the settlement of the 1995 contracts, the Boeing Company began an ambitious campaign of acquisitions. First, it acquired a large section of the North American Rockwell Corporation, then soon followed this with a merger with the McDonnell-Douglas Corporation. The merger with McDonnell-Douglas was accomplished by means of a "stock swap" whereby Boeing traded Boeing stock for McDonnell-Douglas stock at the price current on August 4, 1997, when Boeing stock was at about $59 a share. The merger added four former McDonnell directors to the Boeing Board of Directors, including John McDonnell and Harry Stonecipher, who would become the new President of the Boeing Company. The Boeing stock had reached this price because of the efforts of the previous CEO, Frank Shrontz, to promote the company's business, bringing about an increase in the price of the company's stock to record levels, which meant that he would reap large rewards from exercising his stock options.

. Soon after the date of the merger, the price of the stock began to decline and McDonnell-Douglas shareholders were left with devalued stock certificates. In the fall of 1997, reports of serious production problems began to appear in the press, and by the summer of 1998, the price of the stock had fallen to below $48 a share, meaning that the shares which employees had been promised as a result of the Share Value plan would not be awarded. Cynicism about management's promises became widespread after this event. In the late summer of 1998, the production problems had become so serious that there was a major shakeup in the leadership of the Commercial Airplane Group, and the President of that Group, Ron Woodard, and several of his top executives were forced out of their positions. The Chief Financial Officer retired around that time as well, allegedly because he would not agree to the financial measures desired by top management.

. The contracts with SPEEA expired in early December, 1999. Up until the time that the new contracts were presented to the membership, the SPEEA leadership had alternated between waging a "war of words" against Harry Stonecipher, former CEO of McDonnell-Douglas and current President of the Boeing Co. after the merger, and Jim Dagnon, Vice-President for People, who were seen as responsible for all the detrimental changes that had happened since the merger, and exhorting long-time Boeing executives such as Condit, a chief architect of the merger, to live up to the idea of "Working Together". Essentially, these tactics amounted to speculating on divisions within management circles between the "profit-taking" bad guys and the "pro-engineering" good guys. Because of this speculation, many members had hopes that Condit would also step into the SPEEA negotiations to present a satisfactory contract offer. This hope ignored the fact that Condit would only intervene in these negotiations to avoid the threat of a serious strike, which was the case with the IAM workers, as discussed in the next paragraph. And since the company did not believe that SPEEA would ever mount a serious strike, and that it could never muster the unity of purpose necessary to stop the operation of the company, no action by Condit could realistically be expected. When it became clear that he would not intervene, he became part of the "bad guys" crowd, and lower-level executives were treated as the "good guys" who were going to "save the company" for engineering as opposed to concentrating on the bottom line.

. This whole approach flew in the face of the basic economic facts of the Company's position. The major portions of the engineering, technical, and administrative staff of these new acquisitions are non-unionized (although a number of Douglas engineers in Southern California are represented by another union, SCPEA). In order to develop a single system of benefits for all of its non-represented engineering, technical, and administrative workers, the Company significantly reduced the benefits which non-represented Boeing workers had been used to and created a benefits package known as "Total Compensation" which it imposed on these workers as well as on lower management. One of the features of this package is that the workers must pay a percentage of their medical care premiums. After having attacked the non-represented workers in this way, the Company, in the late summer of 1999, faced negotiations for a new contract with the IAM workers. Up until the last minute, it seemed that these negotiations would certainly lead to a strike because the company was insisting on forcing the IAM workers to pay part of their medical care premiums. However, at the last minute, these payments were dropped from the package and the machinists accepted the new contract, receiving a 10% ratification bonus as well. Rumor had it that Phil Condit, the CEO of Boeing, directly intervened in these negotiations to bring about this settlement. The stage was set for the negotiations between the Company and SPEEA to begin in earnest.

. It was becoming increasingly clear that management had been proceeding with the "Total Compensation" plan with a definite goal of forcing it on all the salaried workforce, whether it was organized or not. Thus, it came as no surprise to many of the members that the first offers by the Company to both the professional and technical bargaining units in early December, 1999, included this plan. The entire Council rejected these offers, and soon the membership would follow suit with 98% and 99% rejections and authorizations for a strike by both units. The bureaucracy treated this as a negotiating ploy, but for the members, it was a real statement of their readiness for struggle, and the preparations for a strike by the standing committees involved in this effort intensified. The staff, as led by the Bofferding, refused to take these preparations seriously and repeatedly dragged their heels when asked for assistance. Yet the initiative of the members surged ahead, overcoming many of these obstructions, as the events of the next few months unfolded.

The mass movement for a strike gathers energy

. Many members wanted a strike to start as soon as the first contract offers were rejected. However, Christmas vacation was very close, and this meant that the Company would shut down completely for the holidays anyway, and strikers would have been denied their holiday pay. So, the union held off on calling a strike and attempted to restart negotiations, hoping that the high rejection votes would lead to a better offer. It was also true that the preparations for a strike were not ready yet, and the debate over strike tactics within the union had yet to be exhausted as well. Bofferding continued to downplay the advisability and effectiveness of a strike. He said that a strike was not a first or even second option, and that if one were declared, it would be of limited duration (a week or two) followed by a return of the workforce before any new contract was actually won. These ideas aroused intense opposition among the membership and led for many accusations of betrayal and intense arguments against Bofferding's views.

. After the beginning of the year, negotiations between the union and the Company resumed once again. One of the chief complaints that the negotiating team had voiced about the first offer was that the Company had entirely disregarded many suggestions they had made to improve the benefits package, and instead included the "Total Compensation" package with its medical-care cost sharing provisions in the offer at the last minute. To many in the union, this seemed to be clear evidence that the Company was trying to break the union entirely, and that their plan to stop SPEEA from organizing the unorganized sections of the Company was to force them to accept the same benefits package that the unorganized workers had and demonstrate that there was no benefit in organizing and that SPEEA was a toothless shell of a union not worth considering. These realizations further encouraged the preparations for a strike and strengthened the resistance of the members to the contracts they had rejected. When negotiations resumed, the Company and the union focused on the benefits package and began to develop an alternate package with some different features. When the second offers were finally presented to the members in late January, the medical-care cost sharing provisions had been removed, but instead, company-paid life insurance was reduced severely and the "Medicare supplement" which the Company had paid for after age 65 was no longer to be offered. And there was still no bonus in the contract. At first, some of the workers voted for this offer, then as they discussed it further in the workplace, the detrimental features became more and more apparent and a groundswell of opposition began to develop. Once again, strike fervor was in the air. The hopes were that in spite of the initially favorable response, the contracts would again be rejected. Although the votes would not be counted until Feb. 2, the Chairman of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), C. Richard Barnes, personally asked to intervene in the negotiations in case either or both of the contracts were rejected. When this announcement was made on the day that the votes were being counted, rumblings of "betrayal" were heard around the plants. Instead of the planned walkout on Thursday, Feb. 3, work continued as normal while the mediator held discussions between the union and the Company. These discussions continued all weekend, but by the first of the next week it became apparent that they were being fruitless. The votes on both contracts had indicated a rejection, and a strike was called to began as soon as it was certain that mediation had failed. On the evening of Feb. 8, news broadcasts indicated that the mediator had left town without bringing about any movement in the discussions, and members were notified by e-mail that a strike was to begin the next day.

The strike begins

. At 9 AM on Wednesday, February 9, 2000, engineers and technical workers in all of the Puget Sound Boeing plants stopped performing their jobs, got up from their desks, and walked out of their buildings onto the street. In several locations where there were large numbers of strikers in big buildings, shop workers, unorganized workers, and lower-level managers lined the hallways and applauded and cheered as they marched down the stairs in massive numbers. At 10 AM, the union had scheduled a rally for a stadium in Renton, and the traffic jam in Everett, almost 30 miles away, was so severe that it took workers over an hour to make the drive to attend the rally. As the walkout was taking place, the energy and enthusiasm of the strikers created a thrilling atmosphere. After the rally there was a short march near the Renton Boeing plant, and it was clear from the size of the march that the strike involved large numbers of both members and non-members of SPEEA. From the very first day, the number of people who left their jobs for the strike far exceeded the membership of the union, and this was in spite of the fact that some union members stayed on their jobs, so that the involvement of non-members was even more widespread than the numbers indicated.

. As picketing began at all the major Boeing plants, it became apparent how well the workers who had organized for the strike had prepared for a serious struggle. Many of these preparations had been carried through despite the opposition of the union bureaucracy, who had never taken the idea of a strike very seriously. Before the strike began, the preparations committee had arranged for the installation of portable bathrooms ("porta-potties") at all the major picketing sites. Each site was equipped with a walkie-talkie, and soon some sites even had cell phones. Volunteers drove vans around to all the sites carrying coffee and hot chocolate, and some members brought barbecues to the sites to cook hot dogs.

. The strikers communicated with each other through e-mail discussion networks, keeping informed of important events and each other's opinions in this way. There were frequent mass pickets at the bigger plants, and the lack of disruptive incidents gave Boeing no reason to obtain any injunction against this mass picketing. Often, the picket lines had the atmosphere of a party -- people were dancing, music was playing, and the level of camaraderie was an invigorating experience. And this was in spite of the tremendous uncertainty about the duration of the strike or how successful it would be. For a long time, many of the engineers had been unable to convince themselves that a strike would have an impact. On February 9th, their mass outrage at the shoddy contract offers had caused them to take a huge gamble -- a leap into the unknown, possibly sacrificing entire careers for the seemingly crazy possibility that a strike by an open-shop union of "nerds", without a strike fund, could bring a major industrial manufacturer to a halt.

. Yet bring it to a halt they did. Every day, the union published summaries of the unbelievable impact the work stoppage was having. Partly this was due to certain fortunate aspects of the strike. One such aspect was the assistance of the IAM factory workers, who stayed on the job and wrote rejection tags on airplanes on the assembly line, which could not be lifted unless an engineer was available to work the tag. Another aspect was the crucial role of the "designated engineering representatives" or DERs. These highly experienced engineers, most of them SPEEA members, are authorized by the FAA to certify that all of the engineering on an airplane met federal standards. Their integrity and meticulous attention to detail are well-known at Boeing, and they play a crucial role in the production of large airliners. There are somewhat over 400 DERs working for the Boeing Commercial Aircraft Group, and during the strike approximately 370 were out on the street. This impressive participation by the DERs, and the fact that their expertise turned out to be practically irreplaceable, played a major role in the success of the strike. Yet in every plant, in every program, work ground to a halt; schedules were missed, customer service stopped, and even workers on overseas duty ceased to work and caught the first airplane home when they heard the strike had begun.

. The continuous reporting of small victories had a buoying psychological effect on the strikers. In the middle of the night, on all the picket lines, workers from different programs would regale each other with stories of how their programs had been brought to a dead stop, and it began to dawn on the strikers that their gamble was paying off, that they could have a major effect on the Boeing company, and that there was a possibility that they could win this strike. And as their optimism grew, so did their determination, and the number of weeks they stayed out on the street grew from one to two to three, and it seemed that the company would have to settle the issue somehow; that it could not ignore it, because it would not go away.

. However, the atmosphere during the strike did not display a great deal of militancy because the union did not have to organize to face injunctions or concerted strike-breaking and attempts by the police to crush the strike. Some of the leaders of the strike treated these possibilities as due to provocations by the strikers, rather than as evidence of the role of the police and the state as allies of the company for crushing the strike. It was clear from many of these attitudes that the strikers had many lessons still to learn about the real experience of striking. If these events had occurred, the rank-and-file might well have been forced to develop more of an independent organization, because the regular union leadership and the bureaucracy would not have been of any assistance in organizing the defiance of the strikebreakers or the police.

The company continues to adopt a hard-line attitude

. Yet the Boeing corporate leadership was not an easy adversary to overcome. Since they had not believed that the strike would happen, and since the conciliatory and treacherous actions of the SPEEA leadership had caused them to believe that any strike would be weak and short-lived, they tried to act as if nothing was happening and that they could continue on with business as usual. This only reinforced the impression that they were completely out of touch with the real impact the strike was having, and with the serious sense of outrage which existed among the strikers. One story, recounted early in the strike, told how the president of an airline called Harry Stonecipher on the phone to ask him why telexes were not being answered. Stonecipher in turn called Service Engineering, to find out that there were no engineers present to answer the messages.

. At first, management acted as if the workers would be back in a few days, but when this did not occur, they tried to settle the strike quickly in various ways, including trying to intimidate the strikers. They made another attempt to negotiate a settlement with the help of the FMCS, by proposing on Feb. 26 a contract which included 100 shares of Boeing stock for each employee to be awarded over a five-year period. This offer still retained the medical care premiums, so it was still regressive. It was greeted with utter contempt, and the SPEEA negotiating team did not even dare to lift it from the table because they knew that the members would try to recall them if they did so. As March 1 approached, the company announced that they would terminate medical and dental insurance, hoping this would cause people to return to work rather than lose their insurance. The company sent out letters to all Boeing employees represented by SPEEA reiterating that no more improvements could be made to the contract offers, and that they ought to return to work. This only caused greater indignation among the strikers and several of them returned the letters unopened to the company.

. Next, the company resorted to a method they had used previously to settle the brief strike in 1993. They declared an "impasse" and announced they would implement the salary increases included in their last offer. By this means, they hoped that the strikers would return to work to see what the amount of their raises would be. This tactic had very little effect, because most of the strikers realized that they could not be forced back to work by an impasse, and that the raises would probably be unsatisfactory anyway and they could collect them after the strike was settled. Throughout most of the strike, the company spokesmen kept up with the litany that "no more money could be expected" and that the strikers should return to work, but this only served to strengthen the strikers determination because the news from inside the plants indicated a growing sense of crisis throughout every program. They could see the evidence of the impact they were having, as undeliverable airplanes filled every corner of Boeing Field, easily visible from the main I-5 freeway entering Seattle from the south. So for a while it seemed that a sort of stalemate had developed, with neither side able to force the other to come to an agreeable settlement, and the backlogs and customer complaints grew as the strike lengthened.

The AFL-CIO takes an interest in the strike

. The leadership of the national IFPTE and the AFL-CIO had begun to take an interest in the development of the strike when they first obtained the involvement of the FMCS in the attempt at mediation shortly before the strike actually began. This was in line with their desire to avoid the strike because they were as skeptical about its prospects as everyone among the local SPEEA leadership was. But after the strike began, they started to realize that it might actually be won, and that a victory by SPEEA could enhance their reputation among "white-collar" workers. So they began to support some of the forms of mass participation which occurred during the strike, including mass marches and demonstrations which were enthusiastically attended by the strikers. These sorts of tactics varied from the tactics favored by the SPEEA leadership, who were afraid of mass struggles and sought to curtail them at every chance they got. The SPEEA leadership favored petition-passing campaigns, promising an effort at the upcoming Boeing stockholders meeting to "take back Boeing" (as if there was some sort of stockholder democracy in effect which would bypass the power of the large finance capitalists -- a clearly fantastic idea). They also focused on filing "unfair labor practice" grievances with the NLRB. These legalistic tactics had no teeth whatsoever, but were presented as great contributions by the union leadership. But the marches and demonstrations proved so popular and militant that it was hard to bypass them. One especially militant picket was held at a downtown Seattle hotel where the Boeing Board of Directors was rumored to be meeting. The march surrounded the hotel during rush hour and lasted for several hours, involving several hundred strikers.

. High-level AFL-CIO officials, such as John Sweeny and Richard Trumka, as well as both major Democratic Party Presidential candidates, Bill Bradley and Al Gore, showed up at the picket lines for speeches and photo-ops with the strikers. The politicians were full of empty promises about their ability to assist the strikers. It was typical of these false "friends of labor" that they would use the strike as a cynical effort to curry favor with the workers with the hope of getting their votes in the coming election. But behind the scenes, a lot of political pressure began to develop to settle the strike before it had a serious effect on important defense contracts and relations with major airlines who were Boeing customers. The company could not deceive major stock analysts who could see the effect the strike was having on production, and the result of this was a significant dip in the stock price on the New York Stock Exchange. All of this increased the pressure on the company to settle the strike.

. In the fifth week of the strike, the SPEEA leadership, in conjunction with the leadership of the IFPTE, began efforts to persuade the FAA to suspend the company's certificate for the production of aircraft. While this was going on, the Boeing Company's Vice President for People, Jim Dagnon, indicated that he was ready for some serious discussion of another contract offer. Unlike the previous attempts to settle the strike, this attempt took place in secret, with the active involvement of the AFL-CIO. On March 17, another offer was announced which did not include employees paying the medical premiums and restored most of the benefits of the previous contract that had been cut in the other offers. This offer also included guaranteed wage increases during all 3 years, a $2500 bonus stretched out over the next year, a vote on agency fee, and the establishment of a "leadership council" with IFPTE involvement. After a day of hurried meetings called to discuss the offer, it was accepted on March 19, and the strike ended the next day, as it had begun, with a mass march into the plants at 9 AM in the morning on Monday, March 20.

. The offer which the strikers accepted was not all they had wished for, because the bonus was much smaller than the 10% received by the IAM factory workers. Yet in most other respects it was a victory, and several of its features actually benefited the lower-paid, less well-off engineers and technicals, more than the more highly-paid ones. Since the bonus was a given as a dollar amount rather than a percentage, it benefited the lower-paid workers more than the more highly-paid ones, and since guaranteed wage increases were part of the former selective salary increase pools, the selective portion of the salary increases would be narrowed and the increases would be more evenly spread throughout the whole work force. These facts make it possible that some of the wide inequities in the salary distribution will be narrowed during the three years it will be in effect. The gains won by the struggle were modest, but they could have been greater if the union leadership had not neglected to prepare for a strike with a strike fund, and if it had not been so eager to settle at the first possible moment. It was also clear that since they had achieved one of their primary goals, a vote on "agency fee" (which insures that even non-members must pay a fee to the union) , they were willing to cease the struggle for any further financial gains at this point.

. A few remarks should be devoted to the "leadership council" which was added to the contract at the insistence of the AFL-CIO. This provision is a face-saving feature for the company, so they can issue high-sounding pronouncements with the blessing of the top union leaders, all the better to delude the rank-and-file with smoke and mirrors. If it accomplishes anything, it will be a surprise, because the leadership of the Boeing Company has shown no inclination since the strike to remedy the major issues that brought it about in the first place. On the contrary, after the strike they gave Harry Stonecipher, who was so reviled during the strike, a year's extension to his service as President of the Company beyond his normal date of retirement in the spring of 2001. The low pay-increase rates, the favoritism, and the rush to off-load business to outside vendors still remain as they did before the strike. But the workers have learned many important lessons about class struggle, and the experience of the strike will remain a popular topic of conversation for years to come.

Lessons of the strike

. The experience of the strike has taught the engineers and techs many very important lessons about capitalism. Before the strike, the paternalistic atmosphere at Boeing reinforced the timidity and complacency of many of the workers. Having become used to the idea that Boeing would fulfill its part of the social contract, provide satisfactory benefits, and leave them free to believe in a capitalist Utopia, many have experienced a rude awakening into the facts of the real world. The new executives such as Stonecipher sought to make Boeing a "team" instead of a "family", but instead what has happened is that the "family" has been replaced with class war. The fundamental lesson of the strike was that this class war is inevitable, and this development has brought about a transformation of the engineering and technical workers, blowing away many of their illusions and replacing them with some of the truths of a more mature working class movement.

. Another lesson of the strike is that the labor bureaucracy and the sold-out union officials typical of a reformist trade union cannot be relied on to wage a determined strike or to sincerely prepare for it before it begins. The rank-and-file workers had to take their own initiative in organizing this strike, and they found that they repeatedly had to fight the timidity and short-sightedness of the union leaders in doing so. Time and time again, both before and during the strike, the workers had to prod the union leaders to give them adequate resources and follow through on the defense of the workers' genuine interests. And the leaders were always searching for ways to reconcile the interests of labor and management, and curtail the effects of the strike as much as possible. They promoted legalistic activities such as filing "unfair labor practice" grievances with the NLRB, as an important way of fighting the company. In contrast to this, the workers learned that mass consciousness provides the strength of a strike, and that they needed to be watchful for all the attempts of the union leadership to betray the interests of the workers and bring about a premature end of the struggle.

. At the same time, the aims of the strike had to be understood clearly. A strike is a very pragmatic thing -- it has concrete goals and if these are not understood clearly and grasped by the mass of the workers, they would not be aware of an appropriate moment for ending the strike and securing their gains when they are truly ready to be secured. It is not the aim of a strike to shut down the employer's operations for a long period of time. This is only the means to an end, the weapon which workers can use, not the objective. When that weapon has served its purpose, it must be put aside, and the workers must understand the best time to do this. Given enough time, an employer can outlast most strikes -- large corporations have very large financial and material resources and the resources of most unions are quite limited. So the workers must make use of all the forces at their disposal, while at the same time understanding the limitations of their position and the differing interests of the various kinds of labor bureaucrats and government officials who can be used in maneuvers to bring the strike to a beneficial conclusion. It is important not to have illusions in these people -- they are acting in their own interests or in the interests of the large corporations, but even in doing so, they can be used by the workers to secure their gains.

. As in other types of war, a strike involves the use of force to change an adversary's policies. The kind of force used during a strike is the force of mass social disobedience. It is not always necessary for this force to be overtly violent, and in the case of the Boeing strike, there was practically no physical violence involved. Yet the confrontation between the strikers and the Boeing Company was a clash between two contradictory social forces; the force of the tradition of working for a living and the habits of domination by the company against the force of a united mass desire to obtain acceptable working conditions.

. In order to support such an operation, the strikers need enormous moral energy, unity of purpose, and the willingness to make sizable sacrifices to gain a long-term strategic advantage. This kind of moral energy can be sustained by the continuous flow of information about the successes and victories of the strike. The moral support of other sections of the population can also be important in sustaining the spirit necessary for carrying on a strike. Suitable material supplies, such as good quality burn-barrels, "porta-potties", food, rain gear, and other comfort items all have their place in keeping the morale of strikers high and feeding their determination.

. Another way in which a strike is like a war is in the role of information about the effects of the strike on the company, and also of the lack of information which the company has of the psychology of the strikers. In this respect, the ideas of the union leaders before the strike about giving it a pre-determined, limited duration would have been very harmful if they had actually been attempted (luckily, the members were able to force the leaders to abandon these ideas). When the strike began, the company had the misconception that the strike would quickly disintegrate and that they could force the strikers back within a very short period of time. When this did not happen, it set the stage for a better agreement because they could see no other way of settling the strike.

. The element of "friction" is important in a strike, just as it is important in war. Friction is the everyday occurrence of unexpected and unpredictable events which can sap the strength of one side or the other, and information about these events and the ability to take advantage of them can frequently mean the difference between defeat and victory in a strike. While it is true that the preponderance of long-term advantages in a strike usually lies with the company, the strikers may be able to take advantage of many short-term advantages and press these home to a victorious conclusion if they are aware of the importance of these events.

. Yet even if a strike is defeated, even if strikers must eventually settle for a contract that is no better than the one they had originally been offered, or even a worse one, they emerge with important lessons about the importance of organization, a class-conscious viewpoint, strategy, and tactics. While victory may breed unwarranted euphoria, defeat may lay the basis for future struggles with the legacy of bitterness which it leaves behind. In this sense, the defeat of the 1992-93 struggle for COLA laid the basis for the 2000 strike because workers who had experienced both struggles were aware of some of the tactics that the company could use, were aware of the likelihood of treachery by the union leaders, and were determined not to let the talk of a "limited strike" be used to turn the strike into a charade instead of a real struggle. The modest victory of the recent strike has left some in the union with a feeling of greater power and energy, but as a matter of fact, the company has still kept up with the same agenda which could lead to destruction of the workers' livelihood. The workers need to maintain continuous vigilance and not let the company leaders or the union leaders lull them into complacency again.

. The union leaders also emerged from the strike with a strengthened agenda. Their objectives consist of expanding the union by organizing more sections of the workforce and winning the upcoming "agency fee" vote, thereby assuring a larger budget for the union. In this respect, a recent controversy about increased pay and a large bonus for Bofferding, the SPEEA Executive Director, was an embarrassing reminder of the real priorities of these bureaucrats. Bofferding was eventually forced to accept a lower pay raise and forgo his expected bonus because of the outrage of the union members and the possibility that they might just defeat the "agency fee" vote if were too clear whom it might actually benefit financially. So new chapters of this struggle continue to appear.

. All in all, the recent events at the Boeing Company have taught the workers many useful lessons, and continued attention to these lessons can strengthen their ability to guard their wages and benefits against the desire of the company executives for increased profits and greater exploitation.

Notes:

(1) The Marxist-Leninist Party (MLP) was a revolutionary working-class party which grew out of the progressive and anti-imperialist struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. It was founded in 1980, and participated in many working-class political and economic struggles during its existence. In 1993, it was dissolved because many activists in its ranks had become demoralized and had lost their revolutionary orientation. A few of the remaining revolutionary activists went on to found the Communist Voice Organization (CVO). (Return to text)


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