A Long Strike in Prospect

Machinists Local 933, in Tucson, Says No to More Corporate Takeaways

by George Saunders


[Most of the information in this article was provided by on-strike members of Local 933, as of Dec. 12, 2006. The article is followed by a leaflet “Why We Strike,” written by Local 933 member Eduardo Quintana, and also by an appeal for support to the strikers written by former Tucson activist Leith Kahl, who is now active in the union movement in Seattle.]

On Nov. 5, for the first time in 28 years, the men and women of Machinists Local 933 in Tucson went on strike against the military-contractor corporation that employs them. It’s now called Raytheon; in 1978 it was Hughes. One big fish swallowed another in the intervening years.

That earlier strike, in 1978, was over company demands for a dual wage scale, or two-tier wage system, with newly hired workers being paid less per hour than those employed for a longer time, although both are doing the same job right next to each other—a situation bound to cause resentment in those who are paid less.

The two-tier wage is a divide-and-conquer tactic that corporations have been introducing, or trying to introduce, all over the country in the past several decades. It is one of many corporate tactics aimed at weakening the unions by undermining solidarity among workers.

Ironically, in the last contract, in 2003, the leadership of Machinists Local 933 gave up without a fight and allowed the company to introduce a dual wage scale.

That was one of many concessions the union leadership gave to the company. The union’s actions were part of a pattern of “concessionary bargaining,” in which union leaders have been giving concessions to the corporations repeatedly. As indicated above, the employers have been on the offensive for the past several decades, and such concessions or takeaways have been evident all over the U.S.

As another example of the concessions made over the past decades, the Machinists of Local 933 lost their cost of living allowance (at some point during the 1980s or 1990s).

But this time, in 2006, Machinists Local 933 has decided it has to fight back. It can no longer allow the company to take away the benefits and earnings that workers have won in the past. The overwhelming majority of the 1,600 members of Local 933 voted, as recommended by the union’s negotiating team, to reject the company offer and to go on strike.

In addition to the dual wage scale, there were many other concessions given to the company by Local 933 in the previous contract.

For example, in the previous contract, all workers had to accept increased payments for health insurance. And cuts were imposed on medical benefits for retired workers, forcing many older members to either live in poverty to pay for health care or return to work, or else try to make do without medical insurance altogether.

(As is generally known, an estimated 45 million people actually do go without health insurance in the U.S., the supposed “richest country in the world.” That brings to mind the well-worded bumper sticker: “America’s Health Plan—Don’t Get Sick.”)

Another concession was that sick leave was combined with family leave, with the result that workers lost some of the sick days and vacation days they were previously entitled to.

Also under the previous contract, from 2003, some 450 workers had their wages “capped”; that is, they received no wage increase at all under the previous contract, because allegedly they had reached the “top” of their wage scale. And under the current contract proposed by the company, those same workers would go another three years without a raise—six years without a raise while inflation never stops rising.

Now, as I have said, Machinists Local 933 has drawn a line, refusing to let the company have all the outrageous takeaways that it wants.

One of the concessions the company is asking for in the present contract is to eliminate pensions for new hires (another divide-and-conquer company tactic). Ironically, at the same time that they are trying to eliminate pensions for new hires, the pension plan is overfunded. It was overfunded even before Raytheon bought Hughes. Raytheon has not paid a penny into the pension plan, and yet the company wants to deny pensions to new hires.

A statement on Local 933’s web site (www.IAM933.org) explains the union’s position.

“This strike is not about us wanting more; we were forced into this position because of Raytheon’s insistence on takeaways – while they are making billions on the war effort…

In the last few weeks Raytheon has announced a 41% increase in earnings per share and all they can think of is how to get more…

“Enough is enough; we didn’t want to be on strike, but we had no choice. We can’t accept a contract with so many concessions while Raytheon gloats about their profits.

“This union has made concessions in the past, when Raytheon needed help to survive. [?] In this contract, we agreed to [a further] increase in our medical costs, as well as giving them more flexibility in outsourcing, but they are just greedy. We tried to be reasonable, but they want us to agree to an 87% increase in our medical costs over the next three years and give them the option of raising it even more…”

Local 933’s web site also reported, as of Nov. 27, that 1,400-plus members and supporters were still holding firm, despite the pressures of being without a regular paycheck in the holiday season. Only some weak or wavering elements, like the 100 or more that voted not to strike, have crossed the picket line.

One way readers can help support the strikers is by logging in to answer the anti-union blog comments on the web site of the Arizona Daily Star, Tucson’s big-circulation morning paper (www.azstarnet.com). Articles in the Star about the Raytheon strike are usually followed by a blog listing comments by readers, sometimes with more than 200 comments.

By the way, many Machinists union members supported the big demonstrations for immigrant workers’ rights last March and April, especially the César Chávez Day demonstration in Tucson, which brought out 10,000 or more, and the larger demonstration, of 15,000 or more, on April 10, in which a small contingent of Machinists carried the local’s banner. Local 933 officially voted to oppose the Sensenbrenner bill, which criminalizes undocumented immigrants and anyone who even helps an undocumented immigrant.

In the present contract dispute the union has prepared fairly well for the fight over the contract, which will cover the next three years. After losing so much in the last contract, many workers were questioning the value of even belonging to a union, and so the leaders realize they have to hang tough and not let the company take away any more.

There is some weakness in the union leadership’s communications with the membership and in mobilizing the ranks of the union for the strike. A solidarity rally in downtown Tucson was called for Dec. 8, but the publicity for it was poor, bringing out little more than a hundred members, and a few representatives from other unions. The rally was chaired by the president of the Arizona AFL-CIO, and it featured a number of Democrat politicians.

At the Dec. 8 rally, many illusions were expressed about the new Congress and the new legislature in Arizona, where supposedly a stronger presence of Democrats will result in measures favoring labor. In a strange kind of amnesia, people forget that the last time the Democrats had a majority in Congress, in the first half of Democrat President Clinton’s first term, they did nothing for labor. Instead the Clinton administration rammed through the anti-labor NAFTA treaty, put an end to “welfare as we know it,” imposed a harsh “anti-terrorism” death penalty law, and with a warlike “feminist” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (no better than Condoleezza Rice) engaged in many imperialist military operations, including against Iraq.

We should recall another strike that took place last year—in what is left of the copper mining industry in southern Arizona. Last year, in 2005, the Steel Workers union held out during a tough strike that lasted nearly half a year, but in the end they were successful in resisting the takeaway demands of the mining company Asarco, owned by Grupo Mexico.

Any victory against company takeaways is a victory for all workers.

A victory for the Machinists union in this strike will be a victory for everyone who earns their livelihood with a paycheck, in Arizona and everywhere!

All out to support the striking brothers and sisters of Machinists Local 933!

P.S.

One final comment about the fact that this missile-making arms manufacturer, Raytheon, is reputed to be the largest private-sector employer in southern Arizona.

That is an indication of the twisted priorities of those who decide the destinies of the U.S. private-investment system. Nowadays, with the decline of copper mining, the place where it’s easiest to find a private-sector job in this area is with a company in the killing industry.

I am told that the money behind the Raytheon corporation, which originated in Massachusetts, is from a family of notorious hereditary wealth—the John Adams family of 1776 fame.

These owners of capital choose to invest in armaments, that is, weapons of mass destruction, rather than in something productive or beneficial to our society and environment.

For example, they do not choose to invest in a solar-power industry, which could flourish in the natural conditions of southern Arizona, where, as we all know, the sun shines hot and bright year round.

But the twisted nature of this corporation does not mean that solidarity should be denied to the union sisters and brothers of Local 933, who are fighting for the elementary needs of all workers.


[Following is the leaflet by Eduardo Quintana.]

 

Why We Strike

We strike because in the midst of unprecedented prosperity, Raytheon is attacking our standard of living without any justification, and because withholding our labor is our most potent weapon.

We strike because after helping Raytheon achieve a 41% increase in profits, Raytheon thanks us by increasing our benefit costs and insisting that it can increase them further at any time and eliminate any benefits it wants to, all without going through the bargaining process.

We strike because in spite of having an overfunded pension plan that Raytheon has never contributed a penny to, it wants to eliminate pensions for new employees, the next generation. This is wrong and it will not happen on our watch without a fight.

We strike because Raytheon has betrayed our older generation by reneging on the promise to provide them with retiree medical benefits, forcing some now to live in poverty or return to work, and others to postpone retirement for up to 15 years. This is unjust.

We strike because Raytheon wants our fellow workers on disability to pay their own premiums while on medical leave when they are sick and least able to.

We strike because Raytheon is trying to divide and pit us against each other by promising raises to some but not all workers, pensions for some but not all.

We strike because we are a union that looks out for all our members, and we refuse to be divided.

We strike because Raytheon wants to roll back the clock to the 1920s and 1930s when workers had no pensions, no medical insurance, terrible wages, unsafe working conditions, and dead-end jobs that could not provide a decent life for them or their families.

We strike because Raytheon says that driving down our standard of living is company policy. But the policy of the union is to defend and improve our wages and benefits and fight for those that cannot fight for themselves just as our forefathers fought for us.

We strike for justice for our older union members, fairness for our present working members, and equity for our future members, the next generation.

This is why we strike.

Eduardo Quintana
Member, 25 years, IAM 933


Appeal for Radical Activists to Support the Strike

by Leith Kahl

[Leith Kahl currently works in the longshore industry in Seattle, with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). He was active for a number of years in Students Against Sweatshops at the University of Arizona, and in the environmentalist and anti-globalization movements in his hometown of Tucson. In 1998, he participated, along with many other radical youth, in support of the Cananea strike in the state of Sonora, in Mexico, just south of the Arizona border. The Arizona statewide labor body of the AFL-CIO, and many local labor organizations, such as Machinists Local 933, actively engaged in cross-border solidarity with the Cananea strikers. Several caravans, organized jointly by the unions and local human rights organizations, went from Tucson to Cananea with food, clothing, and other material aid. In 1999, Leith took part in the global justice protest actions in Seattle and experienced directly the power of the labor movement. The ILWU threatened to strike if the Seattle authorities refused to release arrested protesters, and they were released. Since then, Leith has been active in the unions and joined a revolutionary organization, Socialist Organizer, but he maintains close ties with the movements for social change that he was part of in Tucson. For example, earlier this year he helped organize a West Coast tour for immigrant rights activists Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss, which contributed to the victory in their case, all charges against them being dropped. See the article on the victory in their case on the Labor Standard web site.]

Folks, if you are getting this e-mail it means that I know you, and have a very high estimation for your capacity as a mover and shaker in the town I grew up in.

I am appealing to you personally right now, as someone I have worked with and fought beside, to throw your full support behind the 1,600 Machinists now on strike at Raytheon. I am asking you to activate your social, professional, political, and personal networks to support their picket line. I am calling upon you to get your unions, your churches, your No More Deaths Coalition, Border Action Network, Derechos Humanos coalition, barrio associations, political parties, Dry River Collectives, Earth First! chapters, bands, brigades, dogs, cats, and spare pieces of dental floss to endorse this strike and join the fight to win it. I am calling upon you to organize support rallies to reinforce their picket line, and to talk at length to the workers on it.

I know that most of you will receive heavy flak from some of your friends for supporting a strike by workers who make weapons of mass destruction for a living. I am asking you to stand up and take this flak. I promise you that if you do this, you will not regret the effort. You will meet people on the picket line who will blow your mind, and you will find allies for your other causes that you never imagined existed.

I also promise you that the stakes are high, that the battle is pitched, and that the cause is worth it. Machinists Lodge 933 is a truly unique phenomenon in the defense industry. This is a group of workers that has distinguished itself by mobilizing to support striking mineworkers in Mexico, unusual behavior for defense workers in the USA. They have deployed their union banner in the immigrant rights marches. They endorsed the Million Worker March in spite of the pressure from the AFL-CIO Democratic Party loyalists who opposed it. They have worked in solidarity with environmentalists to fight their employer’s poisoning of Tucson’s groundwater. They have a human rights committee in their local which has on several occasions opposed U.S. foreign policy. A group of them played a significant role in pushing the AFL-CIO Pima Area Labor Federation into supporting the defense campaign for Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss. The fact that this happened made it much easier for other trade unionists up and down the West Coast to get their locals to also support that defense campaign. All of this is amazingly progressive behavior coming from U.S. defense plant workers in a small and relatively isolated local in the middle of a right-to-work state.

Don’t take my crazy banjo-picking word for it. Go meet these folks and find out for yourself. Now's your chance!

Regardless of how much we (and many of them) despise the industry that they work in, it is a fact that their union is one of the few truly formidable bulwarks against corporatism and fascism in southern Arizona. It is also a fact that the stands they have taken may have isolated them from the rest of the Machinists union, which tends to be a very conservative, top down, and reactionary outfit on the national level.

This means that when Lodge 933 is in a fight, they will have to depend on their immediate community as a source of support.

Conservative puritans of the “left” will tell you that it is a sin to support war industry workers. Commit this sin. I promise you it's worth it. You will discover that many things are possible that the jaded cynics have told you to write off as “the myth of revolution.”

Your friend,
Leith Kahl