Boeing workers in California face uncertain future

Wang Lu drives about 64 miles a day from his house to his job at Boeing’s C-17 factory in Long Beach, Calif., and back.

With the news that the 777X plane work won’t replace the C-17 line when it winds down next year, the 52-year-old Wu worries that he won’t have enough money to put his kids through college or afford his $1,800 monthly mortgage.

Lu watches over the seniority and classification of Boeing workers and also is a tank mechanic on the C-17, where he crawls inside wings to install pipes, pumps and tubes.

He began his work in 1986, when the old Douglas Aircraft Co. was in its heyday. There were more than 25,000 workers at the Long Beach complex then.

Even old Douglas chief James Worsham, “Mr. Salesman,” would come out onto the factory floor. Worsham was credited with leading a historic turnaround of the financially crippled company in the 1980s.

Worsham left in 1989 after hitting the mandatory retirement age of 65, and things changed. In recent years, the mood shifted.

Wu has a 24-year-old son seeking to become an eye doctor and a 20-year-old daughter studying marketing. He feels stuck since he’s 52 and can’t retire with full benefits and medical coverage until 55, with him likely to get laid off before then.

“It’s really bothering me,” Wu said. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t look for other aircraft jobs because there aren’t any. I can’t work at $12 to $13 an hour, either. Hopefully, I’ll get something out of this place after working for nearly 30 years. I feel like I really earned my medical and pension.

“Hopefully, I won’t lose my house,” he added.

Boeing Co. has made it clear that the 777X commercial jet largely will be built in the Puget Sound area, now that the machinists’ union has approved a new eight-year labor contract that ensures a stable workforce in the region and scales back pension benefits.

Some Boeing workers with the United Auto Workers Local 148 in Long Beach are growing nervous about their financial future. Many face financial hardships, with mortgages, car payments, the expense of sending kids to parochial schools and college, and dealing with medical issues that even “Obamacare” can’t help.

Starting sometime early next year, Boeing Co.’s 1,050 union workers who build the C-17 cargo plane in Long Beach will see the production line on the C-17 military cargo jet begin to wind down. It’s unclear how the remaining 3,000 salaried, nonunion workers will be affected. They are involved with other C-17 and engineering and research projects for the Chicago-based aerospace giant.

Here’s what some Long Beach-area UAW workers say about the financial hardships that may happen in their lives as a result of the 777X jet program not coming to California.

Ben C. Guarino

Age: 48

Job: Structure mechanic. He was hired May 20, 1985, to work on the fuselage of the C-17, drilling holes, riveting and adding fasteners. He works at the East Spring Street depot center, Building 98, repairing a C-17 damaged in Afghanistan.

Lives: Westminster, Calif.

Financial hardship: “I didn’t put a lot of faith in Boeing coming down here,” Guarino said. His biggest worry is the fact that his pension will be cut in half to $1,138.90 a month, with no medical benefits, since he won’t make the 30-year mark with the company. If he had worked a full 30 years and retired at age 55, he would have received $3,040 monthly, plus medical coverage.

“A lot of the depot work has dried up. Most of it is done at Warner Robins (Air Force Base). . The aircraft work in Southern California has dried up. The space shuttle plant in Downey is gone. The 747 panel work in Pico Rivera that Northrop did is not hiring. There just aren’t a lot of options for us to apply at other companies. Even if we get a job at Boeing in El Segundo or Huntington Beach, my retirement stops,” Guarino said. In other words, Guarino probably won’t earn 30 years’ service with Boeing because there’s a strong likelihood he’ll get laid off before then. He’d have to start counting his years of service with Boeing all over again if he transfers. Guarino has two children at St. Anthony High in Long Beach. One daughter is headed to college next year, and the freshman may be forced to attend a public school, Westminster High. His mortgage is $1,900 a month for a four-bedroom house, and he pays $250 a month to lease a car.

Tanya Roberts

Age: 49

Job: Structure engineer. She was hired in November 1985.

Lives: East Long Beach.

Financial hardship: Roberts is a single parent raising a 15-year-old daughter who’s in 10th grade at Los Alamitos High School. “She wants to go to college,” said Roberts, who pays $2,300 a month to rent a three-bedroom home. But she worries about paying for uniforms and other outfits for her daughter, who is a modern dancer. “It’s always something, but I’ve got to put a roof over our head,” she said. Roberts also has had some medical issues that she’s had to pay for, estimated in the several tens of thousands of dollars.

“This is the only job I’ve ever had. I don’t know anything else. I’m the best airplane mechanic out there,” Roberts said. “It would be a devastating hardship to lose this job. I’d have to move, and my daughter has been going to the same school all of her life. Maybe I’d move to (Las) Vegas or the high desert.”

Arlene Hernandez Rios

Age: 54

Job: Coordinator with the UAW 148 who looks at job descriptions and team-building issues to simplify work. She joined Boeing in 1979, putting her over the minimum 30 years of service requirement to get paid a full pension and receive medical coverage.

Lives: Bellflower, Calif.

Financial hardship: “I’m highly disappointed,” said Rios of the decision to not move 777X work to Long Beach. “I truly believed we had a great opportunity to get it,” Rios said. She turns 55 next month. This means she gets to reap the full benefits of retiring from Boeing. “I’m going to make it. I’ll possibly have $3,000 a month in retirement pay,” she said. “I don’t know what I’ll do. It’s not only the people who work at our plant that will be hurt, but also the dry cleaners, car wash, restaurants and other businesses that rely on us,” she said. “Some will have to move because they can’t maintain their homes.” Rios pays roughly $1,200 a month for her mortgage and $300 for a car. She also cares for her elderly mother.

“I’m not ready for this,” Rios said. “I don’t want to leave. My heart is young. I still want to contribute to life. I don’t want to go off to pasture.”

Rik Rios

Age: 47

Job: Structure engineer, C-17. He’s been with Boeing since 1985.

Lives: East Long Beach

Financial hardship: “I never thought this (the 777X) was coming down here, so it didn’t faze me when the announcement was made,” Rios said. “I felt that Boeing put out its offer (on the 777X) to get leverage with the IAM (union) in Washington.” Rios pays $2,000 a month on a mortgage for a four-bedroom home with his wife and three daughters. “Girls aren’t cheap,” he said. “I had a wife who worked here five years ago, but she was laid off as a facilities analyst,” said Rios, who also had a father and mother-in-law who worked at the plant. Rios’ father, Richard Rios, was a former UAW Local 148 president who was once married to Arlene Hernandez Rios.

“There’s a lot of history and emotion tied to this. I can’t sit around. I’ve got to work,” said Rios, who has daughters age 18, 10 and 7, all of whom want to attend college. The two younger daughters attend the private St. Cornelius Catholic School in Long Beach. “I’m not sweating it. I’m looking forward to a new opportunity.”

The mood at the factory in Long Beach is somber. Workers are worried about paying for college and keeping their homes. But key California lawmakers remain hopeful that some part of the 777X still comes to Long Beach.

“Boeing knows that Long Beach is ideally located near rail, the port and the airport and has a wonderful workforce,” said U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal, a Democrat representing Long Beach.

Lowenthal said that when he last spoke to a Boeing representative about a month ago, the firm understood that Long Beach has a unique plane-building experience that could still benefit Boeing.

“They said even if we select a spot for the 777X, we may still need Long Beach,” said Lowenthal, who expressed enthusiasm over how the entire California delegation of politicians banded together to support Long Beach’s bid for the work. “I am not willing to give up yet and say, ‘Hey, they (Long Beach) need to look for other economic opportunities.’ “

Still, this month’s vote by the International Machinists Union is seen as a death knell for Boeing’s Long Beach factory, where 1,100 union workers had hoped that some — if not all — of the 777X work might come to their factory, which is adjacent to the Long Beach Airport.

The 777X program was important to Long Beach because Boeing is ending its C-17 production line in 2015, with nothing to replace it. Now, Boeing’s 1,050 workers stand to lose their jobs, say shell-shocked union workers who have been delivered successive doses of bad news in recent months.

State Assemblyman Alan Muratsuchi, a Democrat and chairman of the select committee on aerospace, has spoken by phone with Boeing representative twice this month after the machinists’ union’s vote to cut pension costs and agree to a long-term labor contract.

“We are going to continue to pursue any potential work packages that Boeing may be able to send to Long Beach,” Muratsuchi said. “We will continue to work toward saving as many of those C-17 plant jobs as possible.”

Muratsuchi did not disclose details of the conversation with Boeing representatives. However, said the lawmaker, “We talked about trying to save as many jobs given we have an experienced workforce that knows how to build airplanes.”

More in Herald Business Journal

Snohomish County’s campaign to land the 797 takes off

Executive Dave Somers announced the formation of a task force to urge Boeing to build the plane here.

For modern women, 98-year-old rejection letters still sting

In a stark new video, female Boeing engineers break the silence about past inopportunity.

Drone’s ease piercing of NY ‘no-fly’ zone underscores risks

An Army Black Hawk helicopter suffered damage to one of its rotor blades, but was able to land safely.

Disney buying large part of 21st Century Fox in $52.4B deal

Before the buyout, 21st Century Fox will spin off the Fox network, stations and cable channels.

Commentary: GM, Boeing fight a war of words over Mars

Boeing is strongly signaling how crucial deep-space exploration is to its future.

Angel of the Winds pays $3.4M for Everett arena naming rights

The casino replaces Xfinity as the lead sponsor for the publicly owned downtown Everett events center.

Delta orders 100 Airbus A321neo jets valued at $12.7 billion

Boeing had hoped to land the deal, offering comparable 737s.

FCC votes along party lines to end ‘net neutrality’

Republican-controlled FCC junks the principle that said all web traffic must be treated equally.

Rubio to vote against tax bill if child credit isn’t expanded

Sen. Bob Corker announced that he would vote against it due to concerns on the federal deficit.

Most Read