The idea of coming together in common cause is woven into Washington’s social fabric, especially into its union history. But labor has suffered reversals before, and it suffered a large one on Jan. 3, when the Machinists union voted by a narrow margin to abandon the Boeing pension plan. At stake was a key production line.
Now union members and leaders are asking themselves – how can the labor movement recover when one of the strongest unions in the country buckled under the pressure? Among them was Billy Cox, who went to the Machinists’ Hall in South Seattle to find answers for himself and his colleagues.
“I want to not only be looking at short term – what’s happening now – but I want to know what we are going to be doing and what we’re going to look like as a union ten years from now,” he said in an interview.
Cox said he and his colleagues are concerned about the future. “We’re looking for information to see how we can come back together as a complete, whole union. Because the union was split.”
Seattle’s roots in the labor movement are deep. This was the site of the nation’s first city-wide general strike in 1919. The old Labor Temple in Belltown, with its mid-century features and famous neon sign, is still the central place where the labor movement comes together.
But the building is showing its age. David Freiboth, the executive secretary of the King County Labor Council, which represents dozens of local unions, has been working on restoring the building.
Ensuring the Labor Temple has a future is very much on his mind, though he acknowledged labor’s challenges. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership nationally has fallen by nearly half over the last 30 years.
Freiboth said things are going to change. “And that’s a good thing. There may be certain structures in the existing labor movement that don't survive, but until someone comes up with a method to keep the excesses of the market from impoverishing huge amounts of people,” there will always be a need for the labor movement, he said.
The question is how it will become effective again. “The realization that we have come to is that unions by themselves can’t make the type of political and social change that needs to be made,” said Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, the state’s largest union group.
“The salvation for rebuilding a middle class and for creating pathways for workers that are stuck in low wage jobs,” he said, “is to create a much more vibrant labor movement” by helping other movements.
Unions have been using their talent for organizing to strengthen causes tied to worker issues. Those movements include the Occupy movement from two years ago, the current fast food workers movement and the SeaTac $15 minimum wage campaign, which won success at the polls but is being whittled away in court.
The people involved in these campaigns need a place to gather, and places like the Labor Temple make that possible. But Boeing’s round with the Machinists shows what huge economic forces they’re all up against.
Lewis Mandell, a financial economist, said in this globalized, hard-bitten economy, the profit motive is what wins.
“If I’m working on behalf of my shareholders as CEO of Boeing, then it’s my job to maximize my profits,” he said in an interview. “If I find that my workers can be replaced by robots or can be replaced by workers in Carolina, then it’s going to be my decision to say that’s for the benefit of my shareholders.”
That’s okay, said Freiboth. “What that means is it’s our job to make sure that the people that produce that wealth for the investors are fairly compensated. And left to their own devices, the market can’t fairly compensate people.”