We have just concluded a 57 day strike. People have really sacrificed over that period. But it felt good to conclude it with a significant win and even over job security - where the company seemed intractable - we made gains.
The world changed after we went out on strike. There was a Lehman Brothers brokerage firm in the US and the banks hadn't started failing and then a lot of bad news hit so we were lucky to get as much out of this settlement as we did.
The rank and file membership is the backbone of any work stoppage, and ours was resolute. We were absolutely determined that we were going to win. Less than 1 percent of our members crossed the line. Even though you had people hurting they were talking to the press saying, "I'm willing to stay out six months or as long as it takes."
Unfortunately we're quite experienced at this business of striking. We have a mass meeting to get the strike sanctioned about a month and a half prior to the conclusion of the contract. We had a very good mass meeting, we filled up the local arena, about three quarters of our membership attended - around 18,000 workers. It's a procedural vote, but it's also psychological in terms of the membership demonstrating to the company that they are in solidarity with their leadership.
On contract vote day we vote at all the five union hall locations, on the contract and whether or not to reaffirm the strike. We had an 80 percent rejection of the Boeing contract and an 87 percent reaffirmation of the strike sanction. The difference indicates that 7 percent of members were willing to accept the contract, but were in solidarity with the membership to the extent that they were willing to go out on strike.
We had about 100 picket locations and over 27,000 workers to staff them. We sent out picket notification cards to each member who picketed four hours about once a week. We were very blessed in terms of solidarity locally. Our state labour council, AFL-CIO, came out and supported our strike. SPEEA, the engineering and technical workers at Boeing, supported us. They marched out of the plant to join us on the picket lines and lunchtime rallies.
One thing Boeing wanted to eliminate was the pension and withdrawing medical plan from new hires. It's a very costly item for the company. To put it in perspective we currently and previously had been paying 6 percent of our own healthcare costs and Boeing wanted to increase that to 12 percent. This is when the company was making record profits.
In 2007 they paid a total of $149 million for healthcare. That's a significant amount of money, but if you look at the list price on the Boeing web page for a 777 airplane that's $220 million. 55 percent of one 777 is the cost of our healthcare for one year. We delivered 83 of those airplanes along with 411 other airplanes. Every day that we were on strike it cost Boeing $100 million. So in about a day and a half of our strike they could have paid for a whole year's worth of our healthcare.
So it's not about the money, it's about power. They want to put pressure on the union. For example the company has now removed all the chairs and stools from the 777 plane production line so people have to stand at their station to use the computers to order parts and tools. Also one building is half a mile long so workers used bicycles, but management have now removed them all. It seems like punishment to us. Boeing are very angry at the union, and our members are very angry with the company.
In the US companies can permanently replace striking workers but Boeing cannot do that to us. There are only six people who know how to install the first 15 portside passenger windows on the 737-900 model. I'm just using that as a hypothetical. It is not something you or I couldn't learn, but one of those six people needs to tell us how.
If we just go out there fresh and start drilling we'll drill through $100,000 of fuselage skin and scrap it out. There's thousands of those kinds of jobs. It really frustrates Boeing - they cannot permanently replace us, but I believe they would if they could.
We're blessed to have a very skilled membership who deserve greater pay and good benefits, and I'm glad that they have the courage to go out and get what they need.
Larry Brown is an officer for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 751, Seattle, Washington.