How the Tea Party helped a military giant bully its workers

The inside story of how right-wingers like Newt Gingrich went to the mat to help Boeing punish striking workers

By Josh Eidelson

Published November 19, 2013 1:30PM (EST)

Newt Gingrich                    (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Newt Gingrich (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

In a 2-to-1 vote last week, union members at Boeing rejected the giant government contractor’s bid to kill off pensions. But behind the scenes it was actually the escalation of an ugly labor dispute shaped by a 2011 Tea Party outrage-fest.

Boeing is the $100 billion aerospace giant whose business includes selling fighters, bombers and missiles to the government. As I’ve reported, through a series of prolonged strikes, employees at its Washington state factories have extracted a share of the bounty from that business, and secured a level of economic security largely unheard of in America’s fastest-growing post-crash sectors.

This year Boeing, in a move the Seattle Times noted could “rapidly compress” the company’s “exit from Washington state,” threatened to build its next big airplane line somewhere new – at great short-term cost to the company – if union members didn’t cough up massive concessions in exchange for a promise to keep it in state.

Local Machinists Union president Tom Wroblewski reportedly tore up Boeing’s pension-replacing contract extension proposal at a union meeting and called it a “piece of crap,” but ultimately “declined to give specific direction” in Wednesday’s vote and “publicly stressed that the deal would bring job security.” The members still voted no, prompting Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to tweet, “Tough news from [union local] @IAM751 tonight,” Boeing to announce it was “left with no choice but to open the process competitively and pursue all options for the [new] 777X,” and Wroblewski to declare that the union had “preserved something sacred by rejecting the Boeing proposal,” and voice his “hope” that “Boeing won’t discard our skills …”

So Boeing Machinists declined to hand over future pensions as a ransom for protecting future jobs. Still, somewhere, South Carolina Gov. and self-described “union-buster” Nikki Haley must be smiling.

Haley was among the loudest of the right-wing Republicans who two years ago stirred a national political controversy over the prospect of the federal government punishing Boeing for punishing workers’ strikes by shifting future jobs out of state. Presidential contenders like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich lustily bashed President Obama after the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint – the equivalent of an indictment – against Boeing for openly citing strikes as a reason to take future business elsewhere.

Federal law bars companies from punishing workers for participating in protected strikes, or threatening to. It’s usually hard to prove that strikes motivated a company to fire a worker, let alone that they motivated a shift in production. But in this case, the union could just point to what the company had directly told reporters. Still, Republicans went into all-out outrage mode, with Gingrich alleging an “Obama system” of the NLRB “basically breaking the law to try to punish Boeing and to threaten every right-to-work state”; the House passing a bill that would’ve tied the agency’s hands even if companies are proven to have moved factories in order to punish workers; and the story quickly shifting from the right of Washington Machinists to strike, to the government’s supposed discrimination against the good people of South Carolina (where Boeing wanted to built its new airliner) for passing right to work.  With less fanfare, Republicans continued their regularly scheduled obstruction efforts, creating a real risk that the federal NLRB would be rendered inoperative before it could actually hear the Boeing case.

Faced with this onslaught, President Obama declined to weigh in on the case except to say that, “As a general proposition, companies need to have the freedom to relocate.” By December 2012, Boeing and the Machinists announced a deal on a new union contract under which the company committed to building a different upcoming line of planes in Washington, and NLRB dropped the investigation against Boeing. As per usual, everybody claimed victory, but as I noted at the time, the deal exacted a pretty small price from the aerospace giant for what’s about as close to a smoking gun as you’re likely to find when it comes to a major corporation punishing its whole workforce for striking. And it left a very real possibility that Boeing would keep using the threat of transferring jobs in order to roll back workers’ militancy and quality of life – just as it’s trying to do now.

We don’t yet know how this story ends. “We will all be going back to business and now will have to start preparing for negotiations in 2016," a union spokesperson emailed last week. "The democratic process worked and our members let their voice be heard.” A Boeing executive told reporters Saturday in Dubai that the company had no plans "at this point" to reopen negotiations; local politicians and union activists held a "build it here" rally Monday in Seattle. Washington workers’ defeat of the proposed deal could spur Boeing to offer one with slightly less severe concessions, stoke a stepped-up bidding war for its business among governors of other states, or both. If the contract isn’t extended, workers could strike again in 2016. The union conceivably could take up a new and different kind of hardball: trying to turn Boeing’s federal government contracts into bargaining leverage.

But this much is clear: First, while right-to-work laws and attacks on public sector workers’ collective bargaining rights have drawn more headlines, private sector union members have been forking over massive concessions, including vanished pensions for future workers at companies including Verizon and American Airlines. That trend, which Boeing is out to intensify, exacerbates America’s retirement crisis and exemplifies organized labor’s vulnerability. Second, as the Machinists witnessed, labor law doesn’t do that much to avert or avenge law-breaking by companies, and national Democrats are far from an equal or opposite counterweight to the anti-union fervor of the GOP.

And third, unions can’t survive as islands. Wherever union members are isolated – politically, culturally or economically -- they’re vulnerable. Over the past few decades, companies’ growing ability to scour the country or the globe for “business-friendly” environs has systematically strengthened their hand in bargaining, while the steady decline in union membership has weakened labor’s leverage at the bargaining table, its clout in Congress  and its sway with the public. The relative difficulty of replacing aircraft machinists, and the Boeing workers’ willingness to repeatedly strike, enabled them to secure and defend a good living. But the union’s so-far failure to unionize Nikki Haley’s South Carolina (including a bargaining unit where, reportedly “in part to improve Boeing’s chances of building the new facility” there, workers voted the union out) spells long-term crisis.

“If they can’t housebreak us," serial Boeing striker Jason Redrup told me last year in Puget Sound, “they gotta find a way to get away from us.”

Josh Eidelson

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