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Boeing contract underscores decline of union clout

A Seattle-area union's close vote ceding hard-won benefits to keep production of a Boeing airliner in the area illustrates the waning clout of labor unions nationwide.

January 06, 2014|By W.J. Hennigan and Maria L. La Ganga

Nationally, support for organized labor has been slipping. Union membership has plummeted to 11% of the U.S. workforce from 35% in the 1950s.

Philip M. Dine, an expert on unions and labor and author of "State of the Unions," said labor often didn't do a good enough job of persuading the broader public what's at stake.

"People see the rising income inequality and the struggling middle class, they see all that," Dine said. "They also see labor's declining numbers and declining strength and shrug their shoulders. Labor needs to connect the dots, show why a strong labor movement is in everybody's long-term interest."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states introduced right-to-work measures during their 2013 legislative sessions. Such rules allow most workers to refuse to join unions even if their workplace is unionized.

After a bitter strike in Washington state in 2008 that cost Boeing billions of dollars, the company shipped much of the work on its new 787 Dreamliner to South Carolina, a right-to-work state. Boeing now has more than 7,100 employees there who fabricate, assemble and install systems for rear fuselage sections of the 787.

But Boeing very much wanted to continue building the 777 in the Puget Sound region, where it has the most employees and more than a million square feet of manufacturing space. It is estimated that the 777X program would be responsible for 20,000 direct and indirect jobs.

The work includes fuselage construction, final assembly and fabrication of components such as interiors and wiring. Boeing plans to start production in 2017, with the first delivery expected in 2020.

Boeing probably will continue to seek concessions from the union when the company proceeds with a future new airplane design, said Scott Hamilton, an aviation industry consultant and managing director of Leeham Co. in Issaquah, Wash. After the union vote, he said on his website, "We're going to see another round of efforts to browbeat the union and the state into more concessions or give-backs in exchange for production to be located here."

Boeing was responsible for $70 billion of Washington's $76-billion aerospace industry in 2012.

If there is "one place where skilled manufacturing workers still have jobs with a large corporation in the country, it would be Boeing in the Pacific Northwest," said John Logan, a professor who specializes in labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University.

"Yet what has gone on," Logan said, "was clearly a reflection of both a boldness and militancy on Boeing's part and a reflection of what they saw as vulnerability and weakness on the part of the machinists union."

La Ganga reported from Seattle, Hennigan from Los Angeles.

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