If only Boeing (BA) were Brazilian. In 1995, oil workers at Brazil’s state-controlled Petrobras (PBR) decided to go on strike (because the government was reorganizing the company in advance of partial privatization, which has only made union workers more money).
After unsuccessful negotiations and a drastic slide in oil and gas production that threatened not only Petrobras’s profits, but the daily lives of Brazil’s citizens who had no gas to heat their homes or cook their meals, the country’s then-president did what many a company executive dreams about. He sent soldiers into the Petrobras refineries where workers were protesting, and “suggested” that the oil workers return to work immediately. And it worked.
It would make things so much easier if U.S. companies could threaten unions with military intervention, but unfortunately, private ownership and America’s pesky non-partisan stance between management and labor prevents Boeing from getting the Army involved in its negotiations, no matter how “vital” the airline industry is to commerce or how many federal mediators the negotiations involve.
And unfortunately, the company’s machinists know Boeing has no real fangs when it comes to threatening them. So they figure an 11% raise, signing bonuses and cost-of-living adjustments (When was the last time you got an 11% raise on top of your cost-of-living raise for nothing more than showing up to work on Monday?) aren’t enough to entice them back to the negotiation table. The machinists know they hold all the cards. And to prove it, they went on strike this weekend.
Why not? It worked last time (in the 2005 strike, which was also the last time machinist contracts were up for negotiation), why not try it again and see what they can squeeze out of the company? In fact, strikes are starting to look like standard operating procedure when it comes to Boeing’s machinist union.
And the fair balance of power between management and labor envisioned by high-minded union organizers more than a century ago is devolving into a form of corporate terrorism. In the world of unions, strikes are supposed to be a big, bad threat, not a normal step in the negotiation process. If you’re striking everytime you’re negotiating, something’s wrong.
Personally, I think this strike has less to do with giving machinists a fair shake and more to do with the union bosses showing Boeing who’s in charge.
Instead of trusting union leaders to present its offer fairly at a vote (and with the union’s strike-happy history, who can blame the company?), Boeing tried to circumvent bosses by posting its new machinist contract offer directly on its website for all employees to read for themselves.
It seems like a logical idea, in this post-internet age of freely disseminated information, to provide every union member with the unadulterated form of Boeing’s offer. But even today, unions can tend more toward fifedoms than chat rooms. And I’m sure Boeing’s attempt to bring the individual machinists back into the equation angered at least a few megalomaniacal (uh, I mean humble and selfless) union leaders.
The last time Boeing’s machinists went on strike (or the last time they had contract negotiations, which is one and the same thing), they halted work for nearly a month and cost Boeing a pretty penny. We’ll have to wait and see whether Boeing will call the machinists’ bluff or if they’ll win the day again.