Six Thousand Machinists Strike Aircraft Parts Giant in Kansas—Threatening Boeing Production
Six thousand Machinists at a key Boeing supplier, Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kansas, went on strike June 24 after voting down the company’s “best and final offer.”
“We could all go somewhere else and make similar pay,” said one worker who has been at the company for 15 years and asked to be anonymous to speak freely. The average pay is around $20 hourly.
“We are fighting for insurance and language involving mandatory overtime,” he said. “We really want to be able to work a reasonable amount of time and afford to pay our bills without having to work 60 to 70 hours a week. Overtime should be for a new boat or a vacation—not to pay the electric bill.”
Negotiations began in May. The last contract, which lasted 13 years, finally expired last week; it was a 10-year contract that got a three-year extension early in the pandemic.
These workers make the fuselage for Boeing’s commercial 700 series, including wings, and engine pylons for the Airbus. The company also produces parts for military aircraft.
After the vote to strike, the company suspended production on June 22, effectively locking the workers out. The local sheriff’s office has told residents to stay clear of streets where pickets have gone up.
Monday morning a judge also served an injunction, limiting the number of strikers at particular locations, including entrances to the factory. The union agreed to the injunction, leaving workers questioning the rationale and wondering if the leadership was undermining their strike’s success.
“We could hold up a car every one minute, let the car pass, hold up a second car for another minute, and just do that back and forth, but now we can no longer hold up any cars to efficiently strike,” Geoff Waggner, Spirit forklift mechanic, told local news station KSN.com.
Machinists (IAM) Local Lodge 839 members voted 79 percent to rebuff the deal their union leaders had negotiated, and 85 percent to strike, surpassing the two-thirds required.
The bargaining unit includes 7,500 workers, but union leaders say only 6,600 of those are voting members. (Kansas is a “right-to-work” state, letting workers opt out of paying union dues while still enjoying the same union benefits as their dues-paying co-workers.)
On social media, members aired their disappointment at the leadership’s handling of the strike, and some called for elections to replace do-nothing leaders. “We don’t feel they have fought for us and are giving into the company too easily,” said one of the anonymous workers via Facebook messenger.
The source of the rift dates back to the previous contract. A 10-year pact in the aerospace industry was very unusual in 2010—a “game changer,” according to unnamed labor experts quoted by the Associated Press at the time—and its raises were meager (1 percent in some years, zilch in others).
But “I’m afraid that’s what it’s going to take to stabilize the industry,” Machinists President Tom Buffenbarger told the press then. Most workers apparently weren’t convinced; a majority voted to strike, but since they fell short of the two-thirds threshold, union leaders imposed the contract anyway.
“The union is very much in bed with the company,” said the anonymous worker. “Initially we thought they had sold us out, because the consensus 13 years ago seemed as though we were all for a strike and rejection of the contract.”
As workers massed on picket lines this past weekend, a federal mediator joined the negotiations. “The Committee has been working hard to negotiate a fair and equitable contract that reflects the contributions of our members,” said a union press statement on June 24. “Our goal is to bring a final and best offer to our membership for a vote.”
The rejected tentative agreement included a total compounded raise of 34 percent over four years, including an annual 2.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment and a guaranteed annual bonus capped at 2 percent.
The contract offered new hires a starting wage of $20.50 hourly, but there was no immediate wage hike for anyone earning more than “$20.51 an hour,” according to the anonymous worker.
“People that have worked tireless hours to earn that pay didn’t get anything when they decided to raise the minimum,” he said, “which is great for new hires—not trying to hold anyone down—but we deserve better.”
Workers balked at higher out-of-pocket medical costs, especially for prescriptions, and a paltry wage increase when inflation has taken a bigger bite out of their earnings. The deal included a ratification bonus of $7,500, meant to sweeten the prospect of a yes vote, and a 14.7 percent increase in retirement benefits.
“We don’t know the price to make these workers happy. That’s scary,” Richard Aboulafia, an analyst and managing director at AeroDynamic Advisory, told CNN. “This is an industry that’s been deflationary for decades. This is new terrain.”
Nationally, employer profits have shot through the roof, fueling inflation; a Kansas City Federal Reserve study from May 2023 found that 60 percent of inflation in 2021 was because of corporate profits. Workers have taken note.
“Even with the pay increase, I’m pretty much still in the same position that I was when I was making less money, due to inflation,” Sam Johnson, a machinist at Caterpillar’s plant in Decatur, Illinois, told Reuters. Workers like Johnson were unhappy with the deal the United Auto Workers ratified in March.
The capitalist bonanza has been unevenly distributed. Since the 1970s, the gap between workers’ productivity and their wages has grown. From 1979 to 2020, worker productivity surged 62 percent, while the hourly pay for a typical worker crawled up 17 percent over four decades, adjusting for inflation, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
No wonder Kathy Dryer, a 10-year veteran at Spirit, thought the offer was stingy. “We’re supposed to ramp up,” Dryer told local news station KAKE. “We’re going to be building more and more and more and more planes.”
Boeing was slated to ramp up production, boosting the output of the company’s 737 Max jets to 38 per month up from 31 in May, along with other production increases.
The deal would also have changed Sunday overtime from mandatory to voluntary, but workers would still be scheduled for two consecutive Saturdays—the schedule goes two weeks on, one off. That was a sore point for workers, because it meant they would have to dip into their paid time off to take off Saturday if they wanted to have a solid weekend.
“I’m sure the union thought we’d all be happy with it because we wanted to limit mandatory overtime, but they decided it’d be a good thing to force us to use our PTO, so we didn’t get written up for missing mandatory overtime,” said the worker who asked to be anonymous.
AS GOES SPIRIT, SO GOES BOEING?
When Spirit got that 10-year deal in 2010, analysts speculated that Boeing would be watching its supplier and would try to extract an equally long deal from the 33,000 members of IAM Lodge 751 in Washington state, using as leverage a threat to take production elsewhere.
Sure enough, a few years later that’s exactly what happened. Boeing and IAM leaders forced through a 10-year contract that eliminated the pension and weakened the health benefit. Outrage over the giveaway spurred a reform slate that won a third of the votes in the union’s next international election.
That 10-year deal at Boeing will expire next January. Meanwhile, the Spirit strike could soon halt production of Boeing planes.
In May, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun recognized the incredible leverage workers at Spirit had and the difficulties the company would have in making contingency plans to weaken the strike’s impact.
“Even if they tried to get ahead of it by virtue of their current production, that will be measured in weeks not in months, so we’re supporting them in every way possible to get to a constructive answer,” Calhoun said.