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Union Victory at Boeing Unlikely a Signal of Widespread Labor Gains

October 28, 2008
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The recent victory of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in its negotiations with Boeing may seem to be a boon to the labor movement, but observers say it’s an anomaly.

On Monday, October 27, the union and the Seattle-based airplane manufacturer came to a tentative agreement following a seven-week strike.

Under the terms of the agreement, Boeing’s 27,000 union-member employees will receive annual wage increases of 15 percent over the life of the four-year contract. Workers will also receive bonuses totaling at least $8,000 per worker for the first three years.

Health care benefits will remain the same despite Boeing’s attempt to move toward more cost-sharing with employees.

Most significantly, however, the new contract, if approved, will provide Boeing’s workers with greater job security, experts say. Under the agreement, Boeing can use contractors for the delivery of aircraft components to assembly lines, but the union workers will handle those components once they enter the factories and will oversee their delivery to their final destinations.

While this was a significant win for the machinists union, this group of workers is in a very unique position, said David Gregory, professor of law at St. John’s University in Queens, New York.

“These are highly skilled workers doing a critical job for a profitable employer that has huge demand for its product,” he said. “It’s the perfect storm in reverse.”

Despite the favorable situation for the union, its victory should serve as a good sign for the labor movement, said Josh Freeman, a professor of history at City University of New York Graduate Center.

“People will pay attention to the fact that in some circumstances being militant can succeed,” he said.

The most surprising part of the union’s victory was that Boeing held out as long as it did, Gregory said.

If anything, this should be a lesson to companies that acting too aggressively in negotiations can backfire, said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

“Boeing pushed too hard by publicizing its offer and stating that it was final,” he said. “In my opinion, this was a strike that didn’t have to happen.”

Union members are expected to vote on the agreement in the next few days.

—Jessica Marquez

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