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Showdown in Seattle

Boeing’s Union Workers in the Crosshairs

by DAVID MACARAY

A brief summary of what’s been happening in Seattle between the Boeing Corporation and its union workforce, the IAM (International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers).  Aware they have the upper hand, and that thousands of relatively well-paying jobs hang in the balance, Boeing has resorted to an unsubtle form of carrot-and-stick extortion.

The carrot:  If the IAM agrees to re-open the existing contract and give the company several gut-wrenching concessions involving pensions, health care and future wages, Boeing will stay put, the jobs will remain in Seattle, Boeing, as planned, will allow the IAM to build its new 777X jet airliner, and the future will be rosy.  As the seminar creatures like to say, it’s a win-win.

The stick:  However, if the IAM doesn’t agree to the concessions, the Boeing Corporation will move its 777X operation out of the state of Washington and allow other, more reasonable and dependable states to bid on the job.  According to Boeing, who gleefully leaked the news to the media, 22 states have already shown interest.

More stick:  Realizing it has enormous leverage, and unwilling to let that advantage go unexploited, Boeing issued an ultimatum to the state of Washington.  Unless it gave the company a huge tax break, they would pack up and leave.  In a special legislative session, the state assembly, at the urging of the governor, granted Boeing more than $8 billion in tax breaks, the largest corporate subsidy in U.S. history.

So far, so good.  Everything was coming up roses for Boeing.  It had a timid state government eating out of its hand, it had the union back on its heels, playing defense, and it had the media doing its bidding. Then a startling and horrific event occurred.  Godzilla ate the carrot and stick.

By a whopping 2-1 margin, the union local, District 751, voted down the offer.  To be clear, this was purely a vote on the company’s re-opener.  With the contract still in effect, it wasn’t a prelude to a strike.  What the membership was saying with their “no” vote was that the current contract must remain in force until it expires, in 2016, at which time the parties would negotiate a new one, just as they always have done.

After that, things got ugly.  Boeing closed ranks and renewed its threat to leave, the state assembly began shitting bricks, and the IAM International demanded that another vote be taken, a move that, understandably, caused heartburn at the local.  District 751 doesn’t want another vote on an inferior contract.  Yet, with so much at stake, a very nervous International is insisting that the membership take another look at it.

There’s an old axiom in contract negotiations called the “two vote rule.”  It states that a membership will vote down a contract no more than twice.  They’ll vote in down once, to show their disapproval, they’ll vote it down twice, to show their defiance, but the third time around—partly from fatigue, partly from the realization that it’s likely the best offer they’re going to get—they’ll vote to ratify (unless they move to strike).

Thus, the union leadership’s fears are not unfounded.  Rather than buying into the company’s rhetoric, they see the Boeing move for the audacious and naked power play it is.  The IAM International may be too scared to call Boeing’s bluff, but District 751 isn’t.  In their view, all this talk about moving the 777X out of Seattle is just that….talk.

Not only are Boeing’s profits at a record high, the union believes if Boeing truly thought that uprooting its Seattle operation and moving to another state made the best business sense, they would have done it.  What’s to prevent them?  If moving was the “right” thing to do, they would have already moved.  This is a bluff, plain and simple.

Per the International’s demand, another vote is scheduled for January 3.  Unlike the bad old days, when certain unnamed unions (okay, the Teamsters) could unilaterally ratify a contract on behalf of the members, today’s unions are wildly democratic.  The members have the final say, and votes are conducted by secret ballot.

If District 751’s leadership can maintain discipline and keep the membership’s eye on the ball, this re-opener will be voted down.  And if there’s another vote following this one, we can only hope that the union is able to disprove that old “two vote rule.”  After all, weren’t rules meant to be broken? Onward!

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition), was a former union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net