A Solidarity Lesson Plan
September 11, 2002

Maria Tomchick

Last week, teachers in the Issaquah and Snohomish school districts went out on strike. The local newspapers and TV news shows were full of children and their parents moaning because little Johnny or little Suzie couldn't start school on time.

What the news media doesn't show us is the plight of the school employees in Washington state. Last year, the voters passed Initiative 732 to raise teacher salaries. Gov. Locke and the state legislature, however, faced with a budget crisis, only provided raises to 75% of the state's teachers--those paid directly by the state. The other 25%, paid by local school districts with money collected through local school levies, were out of luck.

That's the main reason for the strike. The raises should be available for all school employees. But there are other issues, too.

While Locke and the legislature included I-732 salary raises in the state budget, they made other cuts that eroded teacher salary increases. They cut one paid planning day per year and cut the amount that the state would pay for health insurance premiums, shifting that cost onto teachers.

To put this in perspective, the federal poverty level for a family of four is $18,100 per year. Even before taxes, that wouldn't cover rent or mortgage payments for a family in the Puget Sound region. Most folks in the social service profession consider that a salary that's twice the poverty level--or $36,200 per year--is inadequate for a family of four.

The annual starting salary for teachers in Washington State is $28,300. Your son or daughter's teacher lives on something that's between poverty level and inadequate, and yet we expect him or her to be happy teaching our children--not one or two at a time, not 12 or 13 at a time, but 20 or 30 at a time. And they have to administer assessment tests, deal with students' psychological problems and behavioral issues, cater to demanding parents, motivate neglectful parents, and keep an eye out for signs of child abuse, on top of all the other educational aspects of their jobs.

Issaquah and Snohomish teachers are not the only ones considering a strike. By the time this reaches print, Bellevue and Puyallup teachers will vote on whether to accept new contracts or go out on strike, and Tacoma teachers have set a deadline of September 30 to decide on a contract.

Meanwhile, instead of supporting a living wage for our most important state and local employees, Gov. Locke (who bills himself as the "education governor") stood up at a press conference in Olympia last week and said that he thought Issaquah and Snohomish teachers broke the law when they went out on strike. In other words, they're criminals. Thanks a lot, Gary.

And the media has missed the important connection between the teachers' strike and the impending Boeing machinists' strike. The machinists are, it turns out, asking for one of the same things the teachers want: full medical benefits paid by the company. Boeing, however, wants to shift that cost onto its employees.

The average Boeing machinist makes $54,000 per year. That's better than a teacher, but still not very much. Figure in the cost of housing and transportation in Seattle and its regressive tax system, and that wage is just barely enough for a single person, much less a family of three or four.

Yet Boeing machinists are not asking for a wage increase. In addition to preventing the company from rolling back its health benefits plan, the biggest issue for employees is job security--a pledge from the company that it won't ship their jobs overseas. The machinists want to keep the company from dumping clauses in previous contracts that limited the types of work Boeing could award to outside subcontractors; at issue is Boeing's attempt to bring outside contractors into the plants to perform work side-by-side with union employees--a direct effort to undermine the union. And in a common sense move that would ensure that layoffs happen only when necessary, the union has proposed tying the number of union jobs to the company's financial performance or to the number of planes to be assembled.

The machinists also want an increase in contributions to their 401k plan. To show that they are serious and flexible about it, they have proposed eliminating some or all of future wage increases in order to get the 401k increase.

Boeing has rejected the union proposal and offered instead a very small increase in 401k contributions and a 2.5% salary increase. In a cynical appeal to greed, the company offered its employees a one-time 8% cash bonus if they voted to approve the new contract.

The company's actions also illustrate its contempt for its local employees and the union. Boeing went around the union and offered the contract directly to its employees before it ever showed a draft to union negotiators. Last week, when a federal mediator invited both sides to the bargaining table, Boeing's negotiating team flew into Washington DC, presented the company's contract offer, then got on a plane back to Seattle the same day. They rejected a face-to-face meeting with union negotiators.

The next move for the union is to schedule a new vote on the contract--this time without a federal mediator stepping in at the last minute to spoil the results. Rumor has it, however, that Boeing managers have been sitting down with their teams and pushing them to sign the new contract: lobbying the workers on the company's behalf, on company time.

When the machinists go out on strike--if they go out on strike--it won't be against a hometown company content with a 3% annual profit. Boeing has largely morphed from a hometown company with factories all across the US into a multinational corporation based in Chicago with most of its work performed by a host of subcontractors, many of them overseas. Boeing's business now requires sophisticated coordination, complex financial deals, heavy lobbying in DC, and ruthless business practices to keep its costs in line, boost its profits, and please its shareholders.

Its next goal: break the union. Some folks might say that the machinists should avoid a strike to preserve the union. With the current economic downturn and the slowdown in airplane orders, it might be easier for Boeing to weather a strike than the machinists. But, remember, the airplane business is cyclical and always has been. It's slow now, but orders will start flowing in again soon; they have to, or the company will sink. Yet, when the machinists go on strike, potential customers may start looking elsewhere. Boeing simply can't afford to lose more business to Airbus.

The union still has power, and with a little solidarity and some hometown support, they could teach Boeing a lesson.