Peter Callaghan: Why polls shouldn’t matter to Boeing’s Machinists union

Staff WriterNovember 24, 2013 

A recent statewide poll suggests a large majority of Washington voters would have ratified the contract that Boeing presented to its Machinists union earlier this month.

That, and a swipe of your iPhone, can get you a cup of coffee. Because unlike Gov. Jay Inslee and the members of the Legislature, Machinists union members don’t have to care what the voters of the state think.

When they rejected the contract extension that would have supposedly kept all final assembly of the next generation of the 777 jetliner in Puget Sound, the Machinists cared only about what it would mean to them and to their union.

And that’s how it is supposed to work. Yet the rejection seems to have rekindled antipathy toward organized labor, as though the strongest private-sector union in the West, if not the nation, should accept the same pay and working conditions as those without such clout.

For now, these Machinists get to keep their fixed-payment pensions and the health benefits they won in previous contracts because they can. But rather than congratulating the Machinists, way too many resent them, way too many respond by describing their own circumstances: how they have a fixed contribution pension like a 401(k) — or none at all — and how they have reduced health coverage — or none at all.

The weakened condition of private-sector unions in Washington and the nation makes it surprising when a union has the unity to stand up and the value to force a company to pay attention.

One reaction by some Republicans in the Legislature is to try to change laws to tilt the collective bargaining relationship further in favor of the company. Sen. Michael Baumgartner of Spokane, returning to the comfort of his conservative roots after running for U.S. Senate last year as something of a moderate, wants Washington to become a right-to-work state.

That could weaken the Machinists because it could no longer require that all workers either join up or pay dues equal to the costs of representing them. But the Machinists demonstrated that a vast majority likely would stick with the union regardless of an attempt by conservatives to insert themselves into a private transaction.

Baumgartner’s proposal might not even pass the Senate’s mostly Republican majority, let alone get by the Democratic House or the Democratic governor. A right-to-work initiative might hurt Republican candidates in the areas they must win – moderate Western Washington suburbs. And while South Carolina is a right-to-work state, that didn’t mean it didn’t have to come up with tax breaks and other sweeteners to win a 787 Dreamliner plant.

The Machinists membership certainly took a risk because rejection of the contract could result in a massive loss of jobs — and economic activity — for the state. Turning down the trade of reduced pension and health benefits for supposed guarantees of 777X work might turn out to be a historic misstep. Even though Boeing can’t admit it, the company could decide to place some or all of the final assembly in another state — or even another nation — in retaliation for the union’s failure to ratify the deal.

But that is far from a sure thing. Assembling a jetliner is not the same as working checkout at Walmart. A highly skilled workforce, a problem-solving workforce, is needed. That workforce does not yet exist in South Carolina but it does in Puget Sound. There is a reason, after all, that Boeing was willing to give up its best bargaining ploy — the threat of leaving — in return for contract concessions from the Machinists.

The same poll by Stuart Elway explained why Boeing’s demands — including the most-lucrative tax exemption in the U.S., based on some estimates — are conceded with such speed in Olympia. He found that 66 percent of voters support the generous tax breaks already granted and 50 percent would support even more benefits to influence the company’s siting decisions.

There is little political downside, outside of a few districts with very liberal or very conservative constituencies, to voting yes when Boeing makes demands. But that polling result shouldn’t be extended to suggest that Machinists should respond to public sentiment as well.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com @CallaghanPeter

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