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Trying to keep good thing going
Seattle Times staff columnist
Al Noble knows he's got it good.
He's been a Boeing machinist for 27 years. He's fortunate, he says, to make $30 an hour as a research mechanic, testing parts for new jets. At 64, he's eyeing the end of his working life. When he retires in a few years, he'll get a pension of about $2,000 a month, with medical benefits. Add to that Social Security and his 401(k), and Noble is set.
So when I met him walking the picket line in front of Renton's 737 plant, my question was: Why in the world are you on strike?
"At my age, a strike's not so smart," Noble said. "It's going to cost me. If it was just me, I could vote for this contract.
"But they're sticking it to the young people, to workers just starting out. I absolutely won't go along with that."
This Boeing strike is oddly gentle. You go up and down the quiet picket lines, and hear the same refrains. We have it pretty good, they say. We're not asking for much money now. What we want is to keep it good, for us and the next generation.
Platitudes are plentiful on any strike line. But this time they seem mostly genuine.
A company with a $1.1 billion profit for the first six months of this year is offering its workers a 5.5 percent pay increase over three years. It's the worst pay package in any Boeing Machinists contract going back 20 years.
Yet the strikers don't seem to care about higher pay now. Nor are they tantalized by immediate cash bonuses.
What irks them is that the proposed bump-up in the retirement pension is the lowest in 50 years. And that the company wants to cancel its retiree medical program for new hires.
Who thinks this way anymore? We're an instant-gratification society. Yet here are 18,000 blue-collar workers arguing for long-term security over short-term gain.
This is the opposite of what our politicians are doing. Take Congress. In 20 years, it has quadrupled the national debt, to $8 trillion, brightening short-term election prospects but leaving a hideous tab for our kids and grandkids.
Or take the monorail. The reason it costs $7 billion is because they're trying to put off paying the bills until later.
Yet it's the Machinists who are blasted as selfish. Be happy you have any job at all, carped a letter to The Seattle Times. It's immoral, said another, to go on strike as people are dying in New Orleans.
That's absurd. This strike isn't morally right or wrong, for workers or the company. It's a business negotiation, with risks for both sides. Hopefully, it will be resolved before either is unduly hurt.
As for unions, they are passť, we're told. People like Al and Jack are anachronisms, clinging to ways of life that no longer exist.
Maybe so. Or maybe our nearsighted society could learn a thing or two from Al and Jack about taking the long view.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company