By Brendan Williams
With politicians’ heavy thumbs upon the scale of the 777X decision, the Machinists have spoken. Again.
In 1894, railroad magnate George Pullman crushed a strike, declaring that “workers have nothing to do with the amount of wages they shall receive; that is solely the business of the company.” Labor relations are much more genial today. Instead of calling in Pinkerton guards, Boeing simply enlisted pension-holding politicians to importune workers to give up pension rights.
A surreal Everett press conference featured six politicians with government pensions hectoring Machinists, including one, Snohomish County Executive John Lovick, already drawing over $60,000 annually from past State Patrol service. Cashing in his own $44,000 annual congressional pension, Gov. Jay Inslee demanded Machinists vote again.
Crises bring out the Chamberlain or Churchill in the political class. This one brought opportunity for empathy and leadership instead of hypocrisy and cringing servility. Where was the press conference of politicians demanding that Boeing CEO James McNerney, in the spirit of shared sacrifice, relinquish some of a retirement package that exceeds $44.7 million?
With income inequality at historic highs, such a press conference would have sounded the note of populist outrage this occasion demanded. But it would also take the long view, arguing for a less-unequal future. There has seldom been such political courage, making those exhibiting it all the more exceptional. None of the politicians in this episode will, as is true with Theodore Roosevelt (yet again) in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Bully Pulpit,” be subjects of bestselling histories a century hence for courage in standing up to corporate behemoths. Instead they may be vignettes when future historians ponder what killed the middle class dream.
Political expediency demanded kicking workers to the curb so “greedy” Machinists could be blamed in any “Who-Lost-Boeing?” free-for-all — even if the principles of those workers could hardly be greater. I daresay the average Washingtonian would find it irresistible to sacrifice almost anything about the future in exchange for the short-term cash incentive Boeing dangled. Yet the 49 percent of Machinists defying the establishment, and voting “no,” were prescient: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is among those fearing a crisis where reliance on Social Security replaces disappearing private pensions. As Warren warned recently, “Social Security is rapidly becoming the only lifeline that millions of seniors have to keep their heads above water.” Is this what we want?
The lurching reaction of the political class, and failure to take the long view about what kind of state we want to be, portends trouble on other fronts. For government to subvert a private sector union, even after giving Boeing $8.7 billion in tax breaks, is a bad harbinger for working people under more-direct state control.
For example, although Washington teachers’ salaries have slipped far below even neighboring Oregon’s, should we believe restoration of salary increase-granting Initiative 732 — suspended for six years — will ever occur? While threats emanating from Chicago could prompt a “Boeing session” of a panicked haste so galloping that majority House Democrats did not even have their majority, the Washington Supreme Court’s indictment of the state’s failure to attend to its paramount duty to fund K-12 did not compel fair treatment of teachers in 2013, nor in the proposed 2014 supplemental budget.
Perhaps hard work, whether by Machinists or teachers, warrants only takeaways in this new, anti-middle class era. Where do we, as a state, go from here?
Brendan Williams is a former legislator and a long-term care advocate.