On Labor Day, a conversation with a Boeing union leader
It’s Labor Day … in a year that feels uncertain for workers. The economic pain of the pandemic is being felt across industries. Washington state’s largest private employer — Boeing — is particularly hard-hit. The company was already dealing with a crisis surrounding its 737 MAX jet when the pandemic led to a big downturn in the aviation industry; thousands of layoffs have been announced.
Jon Holden is president of the International Association of Machinists District 751, which represents tens of thousands of Boeing workers in the Puget Sound region. He spoke to KNKX’s Ed Ronco about the company’s situation, and what Labor Day means to him.
How do you hope people think about Labor Day?
Holden: Well, I hope that they're able to take some time with their family. I hope that they can reflect upon the rights that we have as workers in our society. And sadly, we're seeing the chipping away at rights and the provisions that support workers. I hope people get engaged to support the ways that we can improve those rights for workers.
What's at stake for the union in particular at this moment?
Holden: Jobs, good paying jobs. Jobs that bring people into the middle class. Jobs that help people participate in the economy, that help support the economy. These jobs help support many other jobs in our community as well. I mean, that's what's at stake for us. And that's what's at stake for our members.
Boeing says it is studying whether to move production entirely to South Carolina. What happens if the 787 moves out of Washington state?
Holden: We've been fighting for that airplane since 2003. We feel we've earned that, to work on that airplane. We fought for tax incentives to support the company in order to place that work here in 2003. We fought again in 2009 to maintain that line here in Washington and now we're fighting for it again. Those are important jobs for our members, and I think it's important for the Boeing company as well. The efficiencies, the experience of the workforce we have here in Puget Sound, is second to none. And I think it would be a mistake to lose the capability and capacity of the 787 line in manufacturing here in Washington state.
A lot of people are having a really tough experience right now, but I wonder if an economic downturn also presents an opportunity for unions?
Holden: Well, I do believe that, where people aren't represented by unions, they quickly realize they don't have an advocate that is there speaking on their behalf, and whose sole purpose is to represent people and advocate for them. And I feel strongly that unions can have an opportunity to fill that void for many people. Unions provide rights. Rights provide avenues to negotiate better benefits, better pay, working conditions, provisions that help support people as workers. And they also support things in our society, whether you're represented by a union or not. I feel strongly that this can be an opportunity. We just have to get out there and show people that they deserve these rights as well. This is about having that ability. I do look at it as an opportunity as well.
We're in this moment in our country where we're dealing with a lot of things that we should have been dealing with a long time ago. Where does the labor movement fit in with the racial reckoning?
Holden: The labor movement should always stand for equality. Should always fight against racism. You can't be a unionist if you're a racist. You can't be a unionist if you're a sexist. You can't really stand for people if you're willing to separate and weaken workers in that fashion and I think we have a role to play, we must always stand on that side of equality. And I feel strongly about that.