The Strike at McDonnell Douglas

Against the Current, No. 65, November/December 1996

Peter Downs

ARROGANT EXECUTIVES AT weapons maker McDonnell Douglas thought they had their St. Louis machinists cowed. They thought workers would accept whatever they offered. They were wrong.

On June 5, workers walked off the job. They didn’t know it, but their walkout would last ninty-nine days and drag state and federal government officials into the conflict.

Before the walkout, the corporation’s Chief Executive Officer Harry Stonecipher and president Herbert Lanese had reason to be optimistic. The International Association of Machinists (IAM) District Lodge 837 seemed weakened beyond hope. The union had lost over 5,000 members since 1990.

Two caucuses battling for control of the local split the bargaining committee and local executive board. Allegations of election fraud led to a investigation and an order for a new election, which was delayed by contract negotiations.

Lanese was confident the workers had learned a lesson previously. He had ostentatiously transferred work to the company’s nonunion plant in Arizona–laying off hundreds of St. Louis area employees in the process–and told the union that the Arizona plant couldn’t do the work any more cheaply. He was transferring the work just to show them that he could.

The workers in St. Louis did not have a reputation for militancy. In fact, the old local leadership had a reputation for cooperating with management. They hadn’t gone out on strike in twenty years. They had accepted cuts in health care and two-tier wage scales without a fight. They had marched in Washington demanding federal spending on McDonnell Douglas weapons systems.

The union at the company’s West Coast complex, a local of the United Auto and Aerospace Workers, had more of a reputation for militancy. But even they had been tamed, giving away safety and seniority rules and accepting the team concept.

Lanese was so confident he launched into a blood-and-guts pep talk in the middle of negotiations. He exhorted union leaders to follow their teammates in management and destroy the rival Boeing Co., destroy it so completely that its workers would be out on the street, homeless and starving.

Lanese never noticed the looks of shock and disgust on the faces of the union negotiators. He later denied making the remarks when the union made them public.

Company officials thought they had a certain proposal to secure acceptance by a frightened and nervous membership. They offered to guarantee the jobs of 5,000 of the 6,700 members for three years. Their smugness turned to shock on June 2 when the membership angrily rejected the contract offer by an eighty-six percent to fourteen percent margin.

Workers saw through management’s smoke and mirrors. They read the company’s offer as a promise to outsource work in good times and layoff 1,700 workers even if business booms. One union member rhetorically asked television reporters “what are we supposed to do, draw straws to see who goes?”

Why Workers Fought Back

Stonecipher and Lanese seriously misread their employees. The battle for control of the local union was not a sign of weakness, it was a sign of strength. It meant more members were actively engaged in the union than ever before. They were thinking about and discussing key issues in labor-management relations and the union’s future. They were getting an education.

They saw guarantees to save a percentage of existing jobs hadn’t worked elsewhere–they inevitably led to job cuts–and actually led to disaster for UAW members at Caterpillar. They knew better than to make the same mistake.

Outsourcing is a key issue for unions, just as central as scabs. Actually, outsourcing is a form of scabbing, but it is scabbing compounded by dishonesty.

When union and management fight over contract terms, management might hire scabs to replace the unionized workforce. It is a potent weapon, but it also can generate widespread outrage against the company in the community.

If management and union settle their dispute, the scabs usually get sent away. Even if some of them stay on, they are covered by the labor agreement, for the simple reason that the agreement covers everyone who does certain work for the company.

When companies practice outsourcing, they ignore their own promises. They break their contract with people doing their work by sending the work out to replacement workers. When hiring scabs, they bring replacement workers in to work. That’s the only difference, but is supposed to make outsourcing acceptable.

Machinists knew they had to confront management on outsourcing. They were confident they could win a head-to-head struggle, maybe a little too confident. They quickly compounded weaknesses that undermined their efforts.

The Machinists’ position was not as strong as they thought. Not only was the McDonnell Douglas workforce across the nation divided between unions and nonunion, even in St. Louis only thirty percent of the workers were unionized.

The company had 16,000 white collar workers. The day after the strike began, they reassigned thousands to take over machinists’ jobs in the plants. Several planes were near completion, so it was expected to be months before the company felt the impact of a work stoppage.

Machinists also were caught offguard by the availability of outside scabs skilled in their work. The company began hiring temporary workers on June 13. By the end of the strike they had 2,000 temporary replacements in the plant, most of them laid-off aerospace workers from California or Texas. Many of them were laid-off UAW members from the McDonnell Douglas plant in Long Beach, California.

Company executives have job security, but Lanese said he never would give it to machinists because they are expendable. “I replaced them with folks from the 7-Eleven,” he boasted.

Traditional Strategy for Defeat

Tactically, the union weakened itself. Electricians at McDonnell Douglas, represented by the IBEW, offered to honor machinists’ picket lines in return for a pledge from the machinists to honor electricians’ picket lines if the latter had to strike after the machinists settled. The local president of the machinists, Gerald Oulson, refused–without taking it to the membership for discussion–so the electricians kept working.

Oulson explained to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he didn’t want the 6700 machinists held hostage by the much smaller electricians’ union if it failed to get an agreement with management.

The union ran a very traditional strike. It put up token picket lines. It did not try to keep scabs from entering the plant. There was some talk of a boycott, but warplanes and missiles are not exactly hot consumer items. They hoped for federal intervention, and unfortunately they got it.

Three months into the strike, House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO) called company officials and national IAM leaders into his office in Washington to talk. After several days, they called the two top local leaders to D.C. to join them. One day later, there was an agreement.

“Best We Can Get”

To get the new tentative agreement the company withdrew the guarantee of 5,000 jobs, and the union abandoned the demand for a guarantee for everyone. They agreed instead on a UAW/auto-style contract emphasizing competitiveness and income security.

The company agreed to announce its intentions to outsource work and give the union sixty days to submit a bid to do the work more cheaply. The company agreed to pay workers who lose their jobs to outsourcing their regular wage for up to six months, depending on their seniority, and to spend up to $5,000 and one year retraining them for a new job.

Management also sweetened the pension plan by one dollar a month per year of service, bringing pensions to $1,230 a month for someone who retires after thirty years of service. That was a twenty-four percent increase over pension benefits under the old contract. At the same time, the union agreed to give up more job classifications–twenty-one instead of the sixteen they’d agreed to eliminate during Spring negotiations–and to work in “teams.”

Gephardt announced that if workers did not accept the tentative agreement, the government would not order any McDonnell Douglas warplanes. The workers would all be out of jobs.

Most local leaders did not endorse the agreement. President Gerald Oulson said it was “the best we can get at this time,” but it still wasn’t very good. Still, Oulson hammered on the retirement package again and again, labeling it “the best in the industry.” He contrasted the retirement benefits with the dangers of continuing the strike. “I’ve seen what Herb Lanese and Harry Stonecipher can do,” he said. “I don’t want to give them the chance to do it to the membership.”

The national union UAW-ized the ratification process. They labeled the agreement “the best ever in the aerospace industry,” and opened the ratification meeting with a slide show extolling its virtues.

Only “highlights” of the agreement were released to the workers before the vote. In past negotiations, said Rick de la Fuente, a flight mechanic and union steward, he always had access to the full agreement before ratification.

Workers got the message. If they continued the strike, they were on their own for a long time. The federal government and their own national union would abandon them. They might lose their jobs.

The contract passed by a 2-1 margin.

Stalemate and the Future

Younger workers tended to oppose the pact. They saw it as sacrificing their jobs. “We got sold out,” said 29-year-old Matt Wagemann. “A lot of people are going to go from strike status to laid-off status.”

“The differences in this contract and the one they offered before are so minor,” said Quinitin Graham, age 32, “but I know even if we ratify the contract, I will not have a job in three months.”

Older workers tended to support the agreement. One-third of the workforce already has enough years in to retire. Another eleven percent will reach retirement age during this agreement.

“The retirement plan was inviting,” said Lee Hickman, age 53. A lot of older workers “stuck with this strike for the younger people,” said 59-year-old Elais Howard, but “after they saw the improvements in the pension plan, they bought it. They were tired of going through the hassle.”

We’ll never know how close the company was to breaking if the union had rejected the contract. Executives were under the same gun of lost federal orders. They gathered in one room to await news of the vote. When it came through they erupted with relief and euphoria.

So the strike ended in a stalemate. If the workers take their struggle to different terrain in the plant they can still gain a victory. If, however, they embrace the company’s version of cooperation and team concept, they will lose.

Workers’ struggle with owners and managers for fair treatment is a daily struggle. It is not suspended when both sides agree to a contract. The agreement recognizes the relative strength of the parties at a particular time, but that relationship changes over weeks and months.

Management at McDonnell Douglas wants workers to forget about the strike–to forget what management did. It wants them to embrace “high performance work teams,” take on new work, and eliminate jobs. To the extent workers do that, they have lost. If they resist, however, they can save jobs and upset management’s best-laid plans.

Emulating Caterpillar, management instituted a regime of petty harassment of workers for using the rest room and eating or drinking at work stations. It is suspending people for using the word “scab” or for wearing union T-shirts that read “Friends don’t let friends cross picketlines.”

In connivance with union president Gerald Oulson, the company rid itself of the most important leader of militants opposing the contract, union business representative Bill Brock. Oulson made Brock the first business representative ever laid off when he eliminated Brock’s job to cut expenses in the face of a budget crisis, despite making a loan of $150,000 from the union’s general fund that same day.

At the district lodge’s executive board meeting, Oulson ruled out of order every proposal by executive board members to cut expenses elsewhere to save the job. Going back into the plant, Brock found that the company had eliminated his classification. Management told him he no longer had a job.

Whether repression will cow the workers or spur them to resist is yet to be seen.

ATC 65, November-December 1996

1 comment

  1. This article is so slanted and incorrect in its facts that it may as well be in wikipedia. I guess anyone can write anything here and it be counted as fact. I suggest the content owners actually investigate the truth rather than just print this trash.

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