Socialist Worker

Shutdown in Seattle

Issue No. 1686

In my view

Shutdown in Seattle

By Sam Ashman

THE BATTLE on the streets of Seattle last November against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was the sort of event that lingers in the memory. Now another battle is taking place in Seattle. This time it is by workers at the giant plane manufacturer Boeing. Seattle is not just home to Microsoft, Starbucks and Frasier. Boeing's huge factory in the city employs around 80,000 people.

Just about every family in Seattle knows someone who works there. Since the start of February, 20,000 white collar engineers and technicians at Boeing, who are not known for their militancy, have been on strike. It is the biggest strike by such engineers in the history of the US. Until last year the workers' union (SPEEA) was not even affiliated to the US equivalent of the TUC.

But hundreds of them are picketing the factory gates, huddling round burning wooden pallets for warmth. Workers flooded into the union in the run up to the strike. Union membership has doubled in the last six months. Around 63 percent of engineers and technicians at the plant are now members of the union. But the strike is so well supported that 90 percent of engineers and technicians are out. That means thousands of strikers are not yet union members. "I joined SPEEA one month before the strike. I finally got mad enough," says one picket. "After 37 years being here, I never thought this would happen."

The issues they are striking about are familiar. Workers are sick of downsizing-the endless cutback of jobs that means remaining workers have to work harder and harder. They want pay rises and decent health benefits. They also know Boeing wants to produce the cheapest planes, not the safest. Contracting out has cut safety checks as well as jobs. "We have been given crap by Boeing. Now we want something better," Chuck Hawkins told Socialist Worker's sister paper in the US. "This is about Boeing sharing the wealth. We've gone through layoffs and downsizing. Our productivity is way up, but our pay isn't. We want our share."

The solidarity with the strike is tremendous. UPS workers and other drivers are refusing to cross the picket lines. Unionised rail workers at the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad refused to transport some of Boeing's jetliner fuselages after the strike began. They just left them sitting on a siding somewhere south of Seattle. And strikers are making links with a broader movement for change.

Strikers spoke to a recent rally demanding changes to the police following the bludgeoning of protesters against the WTO last November. They were also set to speak at a rally for Amadou Diallo, the immigrant shot repeatedly by New York police officers who were then found not guilty. 

The radicalisation can be seen in the words of other strikers, like one who told a reporter: "I've always been on management's side. My father was a manager back in the Rust Belt where I grew up, and there were some ugly strikes. I didn't really want to be part of organised labour. But there comes a time when you have to stand up for yourself." And another striker told Socialist Worker's sister organisation in Seattle: "This is a battle between labour and capital. That was what the WTO protest was all about and that is what our battle is all about."

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Article information

Sat 4 Mar 2000, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1686
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