Workers to Strike Arms Manufacturer

On Monday, 2,500 workers who make fighter jets, missiles and drones are set to begin the largest U.S. manufacturing strike since last year’s showdown at John Deere, Jonah Furman reports.

 F-15E Eagle fighter jet — designed by McDonnell Douglas, now Boeing — 2017. (Robert Sullivan, Flickr, public domain)

By Jonah Furman
Labor Notes

On Monday, 2,500 workers who make fighter jets, missiles and drones for Boeing in the St. Louis area are set to strike. It would be the largest strike at the aerospace giant since 2008 and the biggest manufacturing strike since last year’s showdown at John Deere. 

The major issues also mirror the Deere fight: a two-tier wage regime and a disappearing retirement system. Like the Deere strikers, the Boeing workers are revisiting concessions they took in their last round of negotiations — in Boeing’s case, a whopping eight years ago. Those givebacks look different against the backdrop of rising inflation and after years of immiseration.

“We were essential workers throughout the pandemic,” says Josh Arnold, a shop steward with Machinists Lodge 837B. “I know personally of three members who died of Covid. They came to work, got sick, went home and died.

“We didn’t get any hazard pay. We got no ‘thanks for risking your life to keep the business running’ luncheon. We got masks and hand sanitizer. It’s our blood and our bones sacrificed on the altar of Boeing’s profits.”

Disappearing Retirement

Per the Machinists press releases and local reporting, the top item provoking the strike is Boeing’s move to gut workers’ 401k.

The company is seeking to reduce its contributions to workers’ retirement funds. Currently the company contributes 4 percent of an employee’s salary, plus it matches 75 percent of employee contributions up to 8 percent. 

The new Boeing proposal is to eliminate the company’s automatic contribution and match employee contributions up to 10 percent.

To get the maximum 10 percent contribution from Boeing, in other words, a worker would now have to put in 10 percent instead of the current 8 percent.

“The company thinks we can’t do math,” says Arnold.

And if you don’t contribute, Boeing would now be putting in zero. This change is especially serious for the large chunk of workers who don’t make enough in their weekly paychecks to realistically make a 401k contribution — those hired since 2014, who make up the bottom wage tier.

Bottom Tier

For the past eight years, the contractual starting wage for several Boeing jobs — titles like housekeeper, garage attendant, crater and packer — has been less than $12 an hour.

Their pay rate is up to $15 now, thanks to an executive order from President Joe Biden mandating that all federal contractors, including Boeing, must institute a $15 minimum wage.

Still, it’s hard to set aside 10 percent of $15 an hour for retirement.

Low wages and disappearing retirement security are legacies of the 2014 contract, negotiated in just eight days and spanning eight years. That’s when Boeing eliminated pensions and imposed a two-tier wage scale.

As part of the pension phase-out, the company offered early retirement packages to more senior workers, expecting a few hundred to take the deal; the final figure was 1,317 people, more than half the workforce. With continued turnover, the lower tier has ballooned to a supermajority.

“I got a guy sitting 30 feet away from me right now and he’s making $40 an hour,” says Don Houston, a tooling mechanic who has been at Boeing since 2016. He started at $15 — a substantial pay cut from his previous job.

The bottom tier has a long, slow raise schedule — it would take 23 years to reach the top. And that top rate is still $10 less than what the top tier makes.

The State of Boeing

Boeing International Headquarters in Chicago. (Wikimedia)

Boeing International Headquarters in Chicago. (Wikimedia)

How did Boeing get away with these deep concessions? In 2014, the union’s concessions in St. Louis came immediately on the heels of similar concessions accepted by the much larger Boeing bargaining unit in Seattle, where Machinists Lodge 751 also gave up its pension for a 401k.

The Seattle Boeing workers first voted down the concessions 2-to-1, but then narrowly voted yes in a revote under heavy pressure from local politicians and their own international union, because Boeing was threatening to take the production of its new 777X plane to another state. That contract expires in January 2024.

In St. Louis, Boeing operates on long-term federal contracts to build fighter jets, missiles and drones. In 2014, many of those federal contracts were expiring or had an uncertain future. “We were in a really rough spot at this particular plant back then,” says Arnold. “We didn’t have any guaranteed orders.”

But things have changed, Arnold says: “We’ve got more work than we’ve got space; they’re building new buildings to accommodate.”

The tight labor market is also emboldening workers. “Before, they said, ‘You have to make concessions.’ And now we’re like, ‘Look, we can go to Jimmy John’s for $20 an hour, so why would I work here for $15?’”

The continued rise in military spending is good for Boeing’s bottom line, and for keeping work in St. Louis. The military spending bill now making its way through Congress is the largest ever — the Senate version is a staggering $850 billion, a more than 10 percent increase over the previous year. The Machinists union lobbied for such increases, and championed a “Buy American” provision in the bill.

Sept. 9, 2015: U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaking to workers at the Boeing facility in St. Louis. (Adrian Cadiz, U.S. government)

[Related: Fueling the Warfare State]

Boeing is reporting a 93 percent reduction in profits for its military production, down to $73 million for its most recent quarter, citing a lower volume of orders. Nonetheless, the company also says it has a $55 billion backlog, meaning work is guaranteed through the life of the three-year contract proposal.

“All the work we’ve got right now has orders in, locked, signed, the ink is dry, ‘til 2024,” says Arnold. “The F-15 [aircraft] is ‘til 2028. We’ve got this contract and then some covered for work.”

The strike is set to begin Aug. 1. Stewards are distributing picketing assignments; the company is preparing management scab assignments.

At the strike authorization meeting at The Family Arena in St. Charles, Missouri, workers pumped their fists to Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

On the mic from the front of the room, Machinists District Lodge 837 President Tom Boelling mused out loud: “I honestly don’t know what Boeing’s thinking. They don’t know who they’re dealing with.”

Jonah Furman is a staff writer and organizer for Labor Notes.jonah@labornotes.org

This article is from Labor Notes.

16 comments for “Workers to Strike Arms Manufacturer

  1. J Anthony
    August 2, 2022 at 10:03

    I have to agree with others commenting here, that it is difficult to have much sympathy with these particular unions, though we’re mostly all cogs in the “Megamachine”, it’s a question of degree. Many of these laborers likely do not know how to do anything else and have nothing else. That being said, you can’t compare knowingly making bombs, armaments and the vehicles that deliver them all over the world to say, landscaping or growing food. All industries today have their destructive drawbacks. But this…I can’t help but wonder how many of these workers think about that, if at all. How could they not? Like any of us making a living servicing an industry that does just as much or more harm than good, how we reconcile it all must differ in so many ways.

  2. Tony
    August 2, 2022 at 07:46

    Local peace groups need to meet the strikers to try to persuade them that there are real dangers in working in such an industry.

    The unions should be exploring alternative products that could be made instead.

  3. robert e williamson jr
    August 1, 2022 at 21:16

    For everyone’s consumption: This may get interesting BOEing has all sorts of problems most of their own “profits at all costs” making. According to the WSJ April 27, 2022, “Boeing Reports Quarterly Loss As Jet Problems Persist”, just under this headline is this statement, “First delivery of the 777X jetliner is pushed back to 2025 while costs mount on big military programs. ”

    Boeing insisted that the government allow it to self-certify much of the officially required certifications on their new civilian aircraft designs. One of the best kept secrets in the industry was that Boeing marched straight ahead with production knowing that the inspection of engine fan blades required serious high tech testing to determine their physical condition as require by engine maintenance SOPs . Inspections that number far too many for the amount of trained tech engineers and the inspection equipment needed to perform the inspections. Inspections of a new manufacture process design for the production of titanium engine fan blades.

    They certified early engines knowing they could not test all engines as required. What could go wrong?

    One last thought, I wonder if the same self certification of military aircraft engines was or is in force.

    Thanks CN

  4. Trailer Trash
    August 1, 2022 at 17:49

    Unfortunately the machinists union is a typical business union that ends up mostly being just another boss. To me, any union that fails to recognize that “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common” [1] is a business union. It’s disappointing that not only did this business union fail to protect workers’ pensions, it also failed to protect workers’ health.

    At the same time, most union workers consider “the union” to be an outside entity that they have hired (via dues) to perform services for them, such as contract negotiation and grievance support. Workers are not going to be successful if they do not see themselves as “the union”. For example, people from union headquarters can offer advice and cash, but building community support for the workers and their job action must be done by local workers themselves, who may be expecting the union they “hired” to do all the work.

    The boss works overtime to keep workers atomized and alienated from each other and the union. Alienation among the workers is guaranteed when there are two-tiered wage scales, which is why the boss insists on contracts with these features. Eliminating the two tiers will be a big victory for workers wallets and for union solidarity.

    Unions in general frequently suffer from a lack of imagination when it comes to tactics. The National Labor Relations Act lays out standard boiler-plate processes, such as for voting in a union. It is all too easy to fall into well-worn ruts created by the establishment and designed to go no where. For example, a “strike” almost always means that all workers put down their tools and go home and don’t get paid, in spite of often poor outcomes. There are many other tactics that can be effective and less costly to workers’ bank accounts, but they are seldom used.

    A “Work To Rule” strike is a good way to stick it to the boss while still getting paid. Giant companies like Boeing have reams of rules written over decades. Rules that, if carefully and thoroughly adhered to, are guaranteed to slow production to a crawl. And it’s a lot of fun to show the boss the rule that he (or his predecessor from past decades) wrote that has stopped the parade.

    It’s not much fun to think about these workers wanting better pay to keep building death machines. It’s not like they are going to use their additional pay to buy out the company and return to making civilian stuff. The hide-bound machinist union is certainly not going to promote something like that because that is not their job. And it would be a lot of work. It’s always so much easier to just go along to get along.

    [1] Preamble to the IWW Constitution

  5. Jorogo
    August 1, 2022 at 12:31

    What tragic circumstances we find ourselves in, when we are forced by US hegemony into a no-exit-strategy war economy.

    I am torn here between my personal convictions of support for organized labor and unions, and a revulsion for war and its manufactured consent. But I do not agree that workers who make fighter jets, missiles and drones are “essential workers” for anything except the hegemony which is tearing this world apart. All that and all lives considered, I’d choose to see the armaments industry dismantled, along with all the jobs it provides. Recovery to a peace economy would be arduous for many, but the convenience of maintaining jobs isn’t worth the price of the current stasis, which is steering us in a trajectory toward a global suicide mission.

    • Rob Roy
      August 1, 2022 at 23:35

      Those same plants could be transfitted to provide other kinds of jobs… for, say, fixing our woefully unstable infrastructure, such as bridges, water systems, roads, housing for the poor, public schools. The needed work here at home is endless and would improve lives and country instead of making weapons of death and destruction. No need to lose jobs. That’s worth striking for as well as fair, living wages and benefits.

  6. Riva Enteen
    August 1, 2022 at 12:28

    If we had a movement, we’d have a mass mobilization to support the strikers against war.

  7. Vera Gottlieb
    August 1, 2022 at 10:14

    Killer Kapitalism that does not have conscience, morals, ethics or anything else to treat persons as human beings and not as disposable ware.

  8. LeoSun
    August 1, 2022 at 09:06

    “EL CAPITALISMO ES EL VIRUZ.”

    “Capitalism infects a living host like a virus, changing its behaviour so that energy is diverted to keeping the virus alive and indeed so that it can be reproduced exponentially. 

    There is much debate about whether a virus is itself a living thing. We can define life as something that is self replicating, or autopoetic. Viruses meet this test.  Others argue that a living thing also practices metabolism, it uses energy to sustain its own existence. This viruses do not by themselves do. 

    Some viruses – but not all – kill their host, stealing too much energy or overwhelming the living organism as a direct result of its exponential growth. This to me sounds very similar – indeed pretty much the same – as capitalism. 

    The DNA of Capitalism is identified by the philosopher and political economist Karl Marx in his Das Kapital as the sequence M-C-M, or Money, Commodity, Money. This is the logical inception or beginning of capital.”

    Capitalism is by definition profit making. It functions by and through the production of the commodity and therefore the exploitation of human labour and the rest of nature.” (the ecologist.org) Adieu

  9. Tim N
    August 1, 2022 at 08:49

    As a unionized worker myself, it’s unnerving to read that the machinists lobbied for Boeing’s continued construction of Death machinery. The “Buy American” provision–what is that? Insane, suicidal, and homicidal war budgets (definitely not for “defense”) are not something any union should be celebrating and demanding. And yeah, it is easy for me to say because it’s not my job, but in a sane culture that had a future, machinists would not be building Death machinery. The death spiral continues, and won’t stop until workers unite all over the world. The chauvinistic “Buy American” stuff needs to end.

  10. Rebecca Turner
    August 1, 2022 at 02:54

    “We were essential workers throughout the pandemic” is a bit much from people (99% male, if the photo is representative) making the weapons to kill poor people around the world. I would prefer these workers to be the most exploited, badly paid and miserable in the world. They ought to leave their jobs immediately. Their jobs are dangerous – not to them, but to the workers’ victims who suffer death and chaos because of what these workers do every day. Boeing should be closed down, like all the other weapons manufacturers.

  11. EJH
    July 31, 2022 at 18:41

    I always support the workers in any labor dispute and I wish these workers well in theirs, but really they ought to be ashamed of themselves for doing a job that supports the war machine and causes so much death and destruction all over the world. If these people and all others like them would strike permanently, perhaps they could bring down the evil US empire and make this planet a liveable place for everyone.

  12. Realist
    July 31, 2022 at 18:32

    Fine. Have a nice long strike. Run out of spare parts, clog up the assembly line and bring weaponry production to a standstill. Maybe Generalissimo Francisco Biden or his chief AssClown Stellvertretender Chef des Wehrmachtfuhrungsstäbes Blinken will not be able to start any of the new wars they lust after. Maybe Napoleon IV (aka Generalfeldmarschall Zelensky) will not have his enormous wish list of modern new weapons fulfilled. And, that would be a good thing. No potential adversary is champing at the bit, barely restraining itself from attacking Amerika and starting WWIII. If the Washington Guardians of the Galaxy were honest, they would admit that.

    • Em
      August 1, 2022 at 09:16

      Wow!

      How Germane!

    • jo6pac
      August 1, 2022 at 11:23

      LOL and that would be sweet

    • Lois Gagnon
      August 1, 2022 at 20:17

      Love, love, love this.

Comments are closed.