Whidbey’s Boeing workers on strike in its third week today

Don Johnson grabs a bite to eat while on strike duty in Everett. - David Welton / The Record
Don Johnson grabs a bite to eat while on strike duty in Everett.
— image credit: David Welton / The Record

Their days still start with a 15-minute ferry ride and the commute to the Everett Boeing plant, but Whidbey’s Boeing workers have traded in their tools for strike signs.

About 360 Boeing workers live on Whidbey Island and a thousand or so live in Island County. The strike of roughly 27,000 employees at Washington’s largest employer enters its third week today, and there are no indications that it will end soon.

When Greenbank resident Don Johnson arrived for his four-hour strike duty earlier this week, his first order of business was to scope out if there were any new developments.

“One of the first things I do is ask, ‘Have you heard anything?’ But nobody has,” said the aviation maintenance technician.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District Lodge 751 called the strike Sept. 6 when Boeing’s offer to the workers fell short in terms of job security, wages and medical coverage, among other areas. Along with improvements in compensation and benefits, the union is fighting for job protection.

“I think the people I’ve talked to, and given our history, I think it’ll be four to six weeks,” he said. “My personal feeling is that it will take another month, month and a half.”

Indications are that this could be a long strike, certainly longer than the last Boeing strike led by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in 2005. It lasted 28 days.

Today, the current strike is in its 22nd day. The Whidbey strikers said that they did not hear any news while standing in the picket line that would indicate a resolution. And on Wednesday, Jim McNerney, Boeing president and CEO, told reporters, while in Boston, that the two sides are at a “standstill.”

If observers ignore the strike signs and just take in the voices of workers, the children playing and the smell of pizza and other food that’s being brought in by workers and union officials, one could mistake the strike for a happier occasion, a street fair perhaps. Johnson said that because the strike schedule is staffed randomly, people who haven’t seen each other in a long time greet each other and visit.

“You run into people you haven’t seen forever and you catch up,” Johnson said.

But the reality is the strike is serious business, and the workers are aware that not only does the local economy depend on a resolution, but also their families. There is only so long even the best-prepared strikers can go without income.

“We could probably go for two more months,” Johnson said. “You have to be more cautious with money. There won’t be any big purchases.”

Johnson, who is on his fourth strike with Boeing, was prepared. He started setting strike money aside when talks about a potential strike started about six months ago.

“People have begun preparing better for a strike,” he said. And it was easy to set money aside, he said. Boeing has full order books.

“We were busy. People worked a lot of overtime,” Johnson added.

But not all workers were ready when the strike was announced.

Michele West, a manufacturing representative on the Dreamliner, said she didn’t plan ahead for the eventuality of the strike. She said she didn’t think company officials would let it get that far, with the large number of pending orders and the shaky economy.

“This is my first one. We actually didn’t prepare. Thank goodness I’m married and my husband works, so that helps,” the Oak Harbor resident said.

The possibility of a long strike worries West. She also pointed to the island economy that won’t get its cut of dollars circulated in the community as Boeing employees have to watch their spending.

“If we’re not making any money, it affects everybody, especially with everything else going on, with the election, the banks going under. It’s a mess,” West said.

Johnson said the uncertainty in the business world could affect the strike in many ways, and both parties may change their positions based on a new economic reality.

“There is a very good possibility that it will affect it,” he said. How remains to be determined, Johnson said.

Either way, the strikers will get a little financial help starting today. Eligible strikers will start collecting $150 union strike checks.

The union will continue handing out checks every Saturday for as long as the strike lasts.

But for the machinists, who make an average of $27 per hour or upward of $56,000 per year, $150 won’t make up for the loss of earnings.

“We’re ready for it to be over with. At the same time, it has to be fair to us,” West said.

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