Business & Economy

Boeing C-17 assembly line workers’ strike idles plant

Boeing employees picket in front of C-17 plant in Long Beach.
Boeing employees picket in front of C-17 plant in Long Beach.
Brian Watt/KPCC

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The strike at Boeing’s C-17 plant in Long Beach has been on for a week. And the 1,700 workers who usually build the giant cargo planes are now outside walking a picket line. So what’s it like in a plant that makes a product when the product is not being made?

The Long Beach facility employs about 3,000 people who aren’t members of the striking United Aerospace Workers union. The supplier-contract managers, engineers, and other employee are showing up, but Boeing spokeswoman Cindy Anderson says it's quiet.

"There are people working in the offices," she says, "but on the factory floor, you don’t have the sounds that you usually hear."

In Studio: Brian Watt on Potential Strike at Long Beach Boeing Plant from 89.3 KPCC on Vimeo.

The sounds are usually so loud, touring visitors wear earplugs. Boeing’s management and the union are fighting over medical care costs and pension contributions, but the two sides agree on one thing: they’ve created more than a million square feet of modern assembly line efficiency.

Employees take pride in a streamlined production process and ergonomic tools that make building planes a little easier for aging workers.

"We are the finest workforce in the industry, and it is not stable in there right now," said UAW member Sharon Jones as she walked the picket line outside the plant. The Long Beach native has worked for the company for 24 years.

"I don’t know if they’re in there building that airplane. I hope to God that they’re not because we are the certified educated workforce that should be in there building this aircraft - not people that do not know the processes and procedures like we do," Jones said.

A strike is the last thing the C-17 program needs right now. The Pentagon has vowed to stop ordering more of the massive airlifters. Boeing is reducing the number of C-17s it makes each year from 15 to 10 – but it’s also looking for foreign customers to keep the assembly line running.

Boeing spokeswoman Cindi Anderson says the company needs to impress those customers by keeping the C-17’s cost low, and the plant’s efficiency high.

"This plant prides itself on delivering for more than a decade on time, and it will be a shame that we don’t continue with that legacy," Anderson said.

Boeing has 33 orders for C-17s in hand; seven are for foreign countries. Boeing spokeswoman Cindi Anderson says its contracts have strike provisions - so even if the walkout delays delivery, planes won’t be considered late. But the work stoppage is tough at a plant where workers are accustomed to rolling a new C-17 onto the tarmac every three weeks.