Jane Mee Wong
Northwest Asian Weekly
“We need more job security, more raises and benefits,” said female Korean American Lee*, 43, an electrician at the Everett-based Boeing plant.
“We need a fair share of the profit,” continued Lee, also a member of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) union.
Referring to the 4 billion dollar profit that Boeing had reported in 2007, she raised her voice to be heard amid the sound of tooting car horns, “(Boeing) got billions of profit. Only the CEO got the most of it and (machinists) are angry.”
Lee, her female Vietnamese American co-worker Tran* and Tran’s nephew were some of the Boeing workers standing by the curb outside Boeing’s Everett factory on Wednesday, Sept. 10, in the evening. They were observing their four-hour long picket line shift, accompanied by blaring music and a cackling coal bin, as cars stopped to honk in support. They are part of the 27,000 IAM union that had voted at 87 percent to strike against the contract offered by Boeing.
“Under the new contract, my monthly medical expenses go up three times, from $40 to $120,” said Linder*, a riveter at the factory. With the rise in co-pay fees, deductibles and a mandatory generic prescription policy, the medical coverage of the new contract appears to be unpopular with the union membership.
Linder, who has had surgery multiple times on his wrist due to “internal damages” incurred by his riveting job, highlights the occupational hazards of his job. “We are required to get into positions that aren’t healthy to stay in. We are also exposed to chemicals like the nitrogen backpack kit for cleaning aircraft parts. Even with protective gear, these chemicals can be absorbed into your skin.”
Electrician Tran agreed. “We are in awkward positions all day and exposed to chemicals all the time.”
Outsourcing of jobs is another major contention that the IAM has against Boeing’s contract. In the new contract, Boeing aims to expand outsourcing to jetliners beyond the Dreamliner, also known as the 787. For now, it is the only Boeing plane for which the majority of the assembly, ancillary and construction work is subcontracted to non-union companies in the U.S. and abroad.
Linder said, “This has nothing to do with the workers abroad. It has to do with American companies trying to make millions of dollars off the backs of the people.”
The company’s attempt to outsource, however, appears to be met with challenges.
Many of the outsourced parts need to be reworked when they arrive in the Everett plant for assembly, said Linder. The skills and certification required for many of the Boeing jobs appear to make it difficult to outsource.
“The media likes to portray us as idiot assemblers … but Boeing has already learned that they can’t bring in anyone to do my job. Many of us have certifications and degrees. As far as management getting paid more because they are smarter than us, that doesn’t apply.”
Receiving only $150 a week for the duration of the strike, these are hard days for union members.
“That’s what I am asking, how can I survive?” said Lee. “(It’s a) good thing my husband doesn’t work at Boeing. We need more income. I need to find another job.”
The prospect of financial hardship brings with it some pressures to give in.
Tran said, “I saw my doctor the other day, and she said it’s hard to find jobs. It’s better to go back to work and give up the strike. I really want to work, but I am part of the union and we wish for a better contract.”
Tran’s involvement in the strike’s efforts for a better contract could not have been possible without the union’s efforts to translate the contract. “At first, (Vietnamese people) didn’t care about the strike, but when (the union) translated the information about the next contract into Vietnamese, we understood and really supported it. In the lunch rallies for the last couple of weeks, a lot of Asians came out to support.”
The daily lunch rallies that took place in the Boeing plants before the strike were thunderous events.
“During lunch, we would just walk around the entire plant yelling things, with signs made out of things from the factory and hitting them with sticks.
Everyone would march around. It was so loud you had to wear ear plugs!” said 25-year-old female Benson*, a new employee at the Boeing Everett plant.
“People actually cared, and I was inspired to know we could do something together.”
Echoing this sense of solidarity, Tran said of her co-workers in the wiring department, “We work like a team, like a family, no matter what you are — Asian, African American or white — we work together.”
“We take pride in our work,” said Linder. ♦
The IAM is accepting donations for strike workers. To donate, please visit www.iam751.org.
*The above names are pseudonyms for striking Boeing employees who were interviewed on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from the company.
Jane Mee Wong can be reached at email@example.com.