Machinists Ratify Contract at Airplane Parts Supplier, But Expose Rift with Union Leadership
Six thousand Machinists working for Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kansas, ratified a new four-year contract last week, returning to work today. The company had locked workers out on June 22, two days before their strike.
Machinists (IAM) Local Lodge 839 accepted the latest offer on June 28 by 63 percent, compared to 79 percent who rejected the first tentative agreement and 85 percent who voted to strike.
“The company basically took away some things, gave it back, and added some small wage increases,” said Nathan Jewett, a production worker who has been at the company for 15 years. “Overall, it’s not terrible. I can live with it—kind of wished we could’ve seen that third offer, but it is what it is.”
Workers struck because the company had lowballed raises, jacked up prescription costs, and disrupted weekends with mandatory overtime on Saturdays.
The new contract notably beat back prescription increases, returning the health insurance to previous out-of-pocket costs, and won a four-year agreement as opposed to the previous 10-year pact.
It also crucially removed mandatory overtime on Saturdays—well, sort of. The company weaseled in some contract language to force workers to work on Saturdays anyway.
“They also have language in there that can allow them to implement alternative work schedules and designate certain percentages of people to have regular workdays on the weekend,” said Jewett.
“Those of us that were here when we were building 52 planes a month know that the line doesn’t stop just because you don’t show up on the weekend. This company is going to be making bank in the next four years.”
This was the first time the union had gone on strike since 1995 when Spirit was part of the aerospace giant Boeing. The new strike exposed a rift between rank-and-file members and their union leadership.
While the strike lasted six days, the company and union bargaining team pulled all the stops to undermine it. The company locked workers out, got a court injunction to limit picket lines, and threatened to file for bankruptcy. The bargaining team urged a yes vote on both contract offers, and involved a federal mediator.
The new four-year deal includes wage increases of 26 to 39 percent over the life of the contract, depending on the yearly cost-of-living adjustment. The deal also includes a COLA capped at 3.5 percent and a $3,000 signing bonus. Workers also won annual increases of around $2 per hour to the IAM pension fund, including 401(k) matches of 50 cents for every dollar up to 4 percent of employee contributions.
It also reverts back to the previous health insurance and out-of-pocket prescription costs. The proposed changes were a sore point.
“There’s now no changes to the health care plan, which was important to several members in need of lifesaving medications that at first were at risk of being removed,” said Brittany Anderson, an overhead crane operator, ahead of the vote. She voted for the new offer.
“I’ve spoken with several union members and it seems that they are pretty happy with this new offer, and I’d be shocked if it was voted down,” she said, adding that new offer, along with higher cost of living adjustment and no mandatory overtime, “was an excellent win for family-work life balance.”
The previously rejected tentative agreement had lower raises and capped the COLA at 2.5 percent. Instead of a $3,000 cash signing bonus, it offered $2,500 cash and $5,000 in company stock.
TEN YEARS IN THE MAKING
The striking Machinists tapped into righteous outrage after the last 10-year contract turned into 13 years following a three-year extension early in the pandemic.
“At least this one is only four years, so it’s not that 10-year monstrosity,” said David Grace, a 15-year production worker at Spirit who is responsible for building the engine cowling on Boeing 737 Max.
The engine cowling isn’t a decorative covering; it is vital in directing airflow and cooling down the engine so it doesn’t overheat.
Given the value workers produce for the company, Grace said that Machinists were demanding competitive wages, especially after a decade without a new contract.
But “the first offer was pretty much a slap in the face,” he said, citing the bite inflation has taken out of workers’ paychecks. “The company should increase base pay more than the 6 percent. They’re making billions off our backs. This negotiation has been 13 years in the making!”
FIGHTING ON TWO FRONTS
Those 13 years were also an opportunity for Machinists Lodge 839 to build a credible strike threat. Instead, workers say the union bungled the strike preparation.
“Everybody was caught off guard,” said Grace. The strike was supposed to begin at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, June 24. “But they never communicated that ahead of time.” Instead, Grace said, people found out on Facebook.
And instead of taking a hard-nosed bargaining posture, the union leaders were stumping on behalf of the company, trying to “sell” the first offer to members, Grace said. “We were fighting on two fronts: We’re fighting our own union and then we’re fighting the company.”
A MOLE, A THREAT
During the strike, workers learned that one of the union bargaining committee members had been meeting with company representatives outside of bargaining.
“After the end of the night, the union committee members would get together discuss their strategy or their game plan for the next day,” said Grace. “And this gentleman was communicating that information to the company.”
After the violation of the rules bargaining committee members had established, Cornell Beard, president of IAM District 70, issued a statement through the union app. “We had one of our negotiating committee persons violate those rules and undermined our ability to negotiate a contract for you. Information was being shared with other company’s officials,” a screenshot shared with Labor Notes said.
One day before voting on the tentative agreement, Machinists were still angry. “The negotiating committee tried to tell us that if we reject this offer, there won’t be another one and the company will file for bankruptcy,” said Jewett via a Facebook message.
Asked if there was any truth to the claim or if it was scare tactics, he responded, “It’s most definitely scare tactics.”
Hours later, another worker sent me a screenshot from a message circulating on the “Spirit AeroSystems Employee Discussion” Facebook page where a member posted that if the new offer was voted it down, the company wouldn’t just file for bankruptcy, but would also lay all the workers off. “I’ve confirmed this through several union stewards,” the post read. “I can’t confirm whether or not Spirit is telling the truth. Go ahead and gamble your future.”