On April 23, Chicago-based aerospace and military contractor Boeing reported a 38% jump in first-quarter profits for 2008, amounting to a whopping US$1.2 billion. "We're off to a good start in what we expect to be another strong year of financial performance for Boeing", chairperson, president and CEO Jim McNerney said.
However, while the corporate giant enjoys record profits, its Port Melbourne-based operation, Hawker de Havilland (HdH) is embroiled in a bitter industrial dispute. More than 700 workers have been on strike since April 9.
As Green Left Weekly goes to print, news has come through that a new resolution favourable to the Boeing workers was to be put to an April 27 mass meeting — and voted up.
Boeing management provoked the dispute by sacking Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) member Allan Bloom on April 7 without activating the agreed dispute-settlement procedure. The company alleges Bloom had "irregular" work time recordings. Another employee was also suspended. After efforts to resolve the dispute failed, workers walked off the job.
The Boeing workers reject the accusations against their work mates. Linda Farrell, an AMWU workplace delegate until recently, who has worked at the plant for nearly 11 years, told Green Left Weekly that the Manfact swipe card time-keeping system has been fraught with problems since it was commissioned: the system has been responsible for some 11,000 errors in the past year. Boeing has ignored numerous attempts by union delegates to address the problem.
Workers believe that Boeing plans to use the current dispute to replace its highly unionised work force with non-union casual workers and "independent" contractors.
The HdH plant manufactures parts for a number of aircraft, including the delayed new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. A number of airlines are seeking damages from Boeing for the delayed delivery of the new aircraft.
Boeing has announced plans to send other projects to its Bankstown site or overseas to allow sufficient floor space for 787 wing tip construction at HdH. There are indications that Boeing intends to sell its Bankstown site this year.
But rather than retraining its HdH work force for the 787 project, Boeing is employing many more contractors and migrant workers on temporary work visas, many of whom are not union members. Many Boeing workers are worried that they will not be offered work on the 787 Dreamliner and instead will be made redundant. Replacing the current work force with new contract labour would weaken the highly unionised shop.
A number of other Boeing operations are either almost totally non-unionised or dominated by industrially weaker unions. These workers enjoy significantly less favorable working conditions and pay.
From the beginning of the dispute Boeing refused to work towards a resolution with the AMWU, instead instigating legal action against its work force. Boeing launched a campaign of misinformation and intimidation to break the strike: workers received phone calls and letters accusing the union of instigating the problem and the company arranged meetings with employees without informing the union.
The AMWU has been hit with a court injunction making it liable for lost revenue of $1.3 million per day if officials are in any way involved in, or seen to be in support of, the striking workers.
In a show of strength striking workers defied an Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) ruling preventing industrial action and a Federal Court return-to-work order. Almost all union delegates were served with affidavits and all unionists participating in the dispute have been threatened with legal action by Boeing.
Under Howard's Work Choices legislation, much of which are still in place, the AIRC can only use its powers to conciliate and help resolve disputes if the employer agrees, but has been given extended power to impose hefty fines on workers and unions.
A worker, who preferred not to be named, told GLW that Boeing has become "power drunk" on the industrial relations laws. "Even though we have a new government, nothing has changed; if people want confirmation that the laws are still the same, this strike is a good example.
"This is an important dispute and many companies are watching this. We are a strong union, and they want to lop off our head. But we represent the strength of the union movement. If nothing else, people will have learned through this dispute that to be treated with respect doesn't factor with the current industrial climate", he said.
A 24-hour community assembly at the site, supported by the community network Union Solidarity, has prevented materials from entering or leaving through the gates.
On April 24, Union Solidarity coordinator Dave Kerin was served with an order by the Workplace Ombudsman to produce documentation in relation to the dispute by May 8. Failure to comply is punishable with a prison sentence of up to six months.
Boeing sent a letter to the striking workers on April 17 stating that if they returned to work and stayed at work through the life of the current enterprise bargaining agreement, "all legal proceedings, against all working employees, will be dropped". In other words, the company is threatening legal action and massive fines for workers exercising their democratic right to withdraw their labour.
A mass meeting on April 19 rejected Boeing's offer outright. Instead, the workers adopted a settlement agreement which called on Boeing to drop all legal action, return the sacked worker to his position and let an independent arbitrator investigate allegations made against the sacked worker and other employees. Boeing rejected the workers' proposal.
Mediation ordered by the Federal Court on April 23 between the parties, including the union, reached an impasse after seven hours.
The following day, the workers overwhelmingly rejected Boeing's "modified" agreement, which specifically stated that the company could investigate actions taken during the strike that it believes "may have been threatening or of a physical nature" (Boeing's so-called "code of conduct rules"). This was rejected, as it would leave workers vulnerable to recrimination after having returned to work.
Paul Stretton, an AMWU delegate until recently, told GLWthat he didn't believe that the swipe card was the "real issue" in this dispute. "They [Boeing] wanted us to go on strike from the start, and I don't think they want us back. All they're after is to get the union out of this workplace."
"If Boeing had sat down with the union right from the start of the dispute we wouldn't be where we are today", Farrell told GLW. "All we want is just resolution. We have to show Boeing that if they want to play hard ball, we can play ball too, and we do it well."
Public support for the Boeing workers has been strong, with different unions staffing the picket line. Striking workers have been able to get hardship money from donations coming in.
Kerin told GLW that the Boeing dispute highlights the fact that jobs are disappearing in the manufacturing sector, and that we need to fight the trend of companies going off shore in search of cheaper and easier to exploit labor.