Business & Economy

Boeing C-17 line workers in Long Beach go on strike

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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At 12:01 Tuesday morning, 1,700 workers that build Boeing’s C-17 cargo plane in Long Beach began a strike. They want the defense contractor to come up with a better deal on medical and pension benefits.

Updated 9:44 a.m. Download At midnight, 1,700 workers who build the Boeing C-17 cargo plane in Long Beach went on strike, after contract talks broke down yesterday. Boeing managers say they’ve offered one of the best contracts in the aerospace industry, with big pay increases. Stan Klemchuk is president of United Aerospace Workers Union Local 148. He spoke with KPCC’s Brian Watt this morning on the picket line. "It's not about pay increases, and not about wages," said Klemchuk. "It's about our medical and our pension." Klemchuk said most of the C-17 workers were hired right out of high school, building the plane from inception up. "We were the one facility that carried, made more profit during 9/11 than any other Boeing facility," said Klemchuk, noting that they were one of the few facilities that was profitable during the period after 9/11. He said that the C-17 workers make more money for Boeing via this program than any other program, and that they deserve to be paid with better pension and medical. Klemchuk said that they would continue to strike until they get the pension and the medical they feel they deserve. Updated 9:41 a.m. Download A new crop of picketers made their way to the strike line, with shifts moving in and out. The first shift started at midnight. It's a large group, welcoming other Boeing employees who aren't on strike to their jobs. The strikers are stationed at the entrances to every parking lot at the facility. There are 1,700 assembly line workers on strike. Many have worked at Boeing for 25 years. They say that they've been building this plane since its inception and that they are the certified, educated workforce. Without these workers, Boeing can't build this plane. Boeing is currently streamlining, reducing the number of planes it produces per year. The Pentagon has been saying for years that it wants to stop ordering these planes, so it's a difficult moment for Boeing. Boeing is seeking foreign customers, such as India, to order Boeing aircraft. Boeing management has called in a federal mediator, but it's still unclear when the two sides will return to the bargaining table. They negotiated for over a month, but over 80 percent of union members rejected their most recent offer last week. Updated 8:13 a.m. Download This strike has not completely shut down the Long Beach plant, as there are 3,300 workers who are not members of the United Aerospace Workers union who are not on strike. Those on strike are assembly line workers, so the manufacturing of the C-17 Globemaster is shut down. Marketing and management employees are making their way into the plant, passing their striking colleagues on the way in, as the strikers are stationed at the entrance to every parking lot. This is more about medical benefits than pay. The workers feel they're being asked to contribute too much to medical care. As many of the workers get close to retirement, they're concerned about what happens when they do retire or if they get laid off due to Boeing streamlining operations. They worry that they won't be able to afford the medical plan being offered in this contract. A Boeing spokeswoman said that a federal mediator has been called in, but there's no word on when the mediator will begin to participate in talks. Talks are currently at a standstill. One Boeing worker was concerned that management was trying to extend talks for another week while they stayed at work so that the workers could finish manufacturing two planes and get those off the runway. According to this worker, this would have allowed them to finish for a few months and let management better weather the strike. Updated 7:33 a.m. Download Bob Wagner of Garden Grove is a team lead mechanic. Wagner has worked for Boeing for 25 years. He has six people who work for him, assembling panels when they come off the automation machine and fixing anything that might have broken. Wagner says he's here for medical and retirement. "This isn't about money." He says that, by the end of this contract, management wants workers to pay 35 to 40 percent for medical, as well as $4 under industry standard for retirement. "I'm 54 and I have leukemia, so if I'm paying $57 every two weeks for my insurance for me and my daughter, the first year it would go to $180," said Wagner. "By the end of the contract, it will go almost $400." Wagner said that it's an older workforce, with most of the people at the plant near retirement age. "The average age of the mechanic is 55 years of age." This is the first strike at the facility since it opened in the early '90s. It prides itself on efficiency, but right now, there aren't any planes being made. Updated 6:33 a.m. Download Workers effectively shut down the Long Beach plant where Boeing C-17s are constructed. Management believes they've offered one of the best contracts in the industry, with plenty of pay increases, but for the workers on the picket line, the sticking point is pension and medical costs. Workers feel they're being asked to contribute too much to both medical and pension funds. Most of the workers are men, looking at retirement soon after being on the job for 25 years or more. Many of the workers on the picket lines had been there since midnight. Previously: Negotiators from Boeing and the United Aerospace Workers union met for hours yesterday in a final attempt to head off a strike. But they couldn’t end a stalemate, and the union began posting strike assignments on its website shortly after the meeting broke up. The two sides had negotiated for more than a month. A week ago, nearly 80 percent of the union’s members voted to reject Boeing's best and final offer. It includes better pay, but its provisions on medical costs and pension benefits are sticking points for the union. Boeing’s negotiators have called on a federal mediator to salvage the talks. They’ve vowed to keep the plant open for the more than 3,000 other employees who work there. The strike comes as the Pentagon vows to stop ordering more C-17s – and as Boeing pursues contracts to build the massive cargo plane for India and other countries.