No sooner had Boeing announced intent to move finishing work on its 737s to an idle plant in Long Beach, California, than representatives of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) started wailing about losing jobs overseas.
Certainly, there have been serious job losses because of NAFTA and the cost-cutting, “downsizing” practices of U.S. corporations, but when a union cries wolf over a small step the company would take to rehire unionized employees, then you know that there are some very dim bulbs in charge of the IAM. The Boeing move will not put employees in the Puget Sound out of work and it will employ laid-off workers in Long Beach at old McDonnell Douglas plants. Furthermore, those workers are union employees, too, albeit members of the United Auto Workers.
If anything, this move, and the IAM’s overheated response, point to a failure of many trade unions to recognize that their first and foremost duty is to organize and build bridges with fellow workers, not to enhance their own, independent union. The IAM should have been working to unite with McDonnell Douglas workers as soon as the merger was announced, and fight for benefits and job protection for them as well; instead, the IAM has been happy to more or less ignore the McDonnell Douglas workers as long as no IAM members lose their jobs here. This is a clear example of how trade unions often act like major corporations to carve out and defend their own turf, regardless of how it may hurt the community as a whole.
Another example of this is the local IAM’s endorsement of reactionary Republican Rep. Jack Metcalf for Congress. A fatuous statement by Bill Johnson, the district president of the IAM, says it all: “We have always told our members we are a non-partisan organization, and this proves it.”
What it really proves is that trade unions like the IAM will support politicians on the very narrow issue of job protection, while ignoring the broader impact on the community of supporting such right-wing fanatics. The IAM endorsed Metcalf because he’s a critic of free trade (as many conservatives are) and he has “made a difference on a couple of votes” in the House. On the other hand, Metcalf has also earned high marks from the Christian Coalition, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Federation of Independent Business. As a state senator, he had numerous, documented links with white supremacist groups. Obviously, it doesn’t bother the IAM to be in such company.
Trade union membership is declining for a reason. Unions must pull back from the politics of endorsing candidates who (in their eyes) are less horrible than the alternative, and must begin using their members’ dues to fund projects that will have more impact (and do much less damage) for their members and the community as a whole. If, for example, the IAM had fought as hard to save the jobs of 5,000 UAW workers in Long Beach and insisted that they be paid at the same rates as IAM workers and with the same benefits package, there wouldn’t be the current fear that Boeing would rehire these workers at lower wages to undercut the IAM. Furthermore, if the IAM had not allowed itself to be lulled by Boeing’s talk of moving those 5,000 jobs north to Seattle, there might not be such a heavy backlog still plaguing the commercial aircraft division. When Boeing Chairman Phil Condit announced the layoffs in Long Beach in April, the IAM could have resisted by pointing out that the company had more than enough work to spread around. Now, however, Boeing continues to pay out millions of dollars in late shipment fees to customers. That’s millions that it can’t pay to its workers; when the millions do come, they’ll get diverted to shareholders first. And Boeing will fight all the harder against pay increases when the next contract is up for renewal.
In short, someone at the IAM needs to get a clue. The message is simple: if you act like the boss, expect workers and the community to treat you the same way as they treat the boss–with contempt and distrust.