Disunity Among the Machinists

by Mark Worth
The Free Press

Talk to any number of sickened Boeing workers and you'll hear words that you'd think were being slung at company management, not at their own union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
"[Former District Lodge 751 president Tom] Baker would not talk to us - he was all fake and phony," said Billie McCormick, who worked and fell ill at Boeing's Auburn plant. "I believe the union is bought and paid for by Boeing."
McCormick is one of several former Boeing workers interviewed by the Free Press who feel that when they became too ill to work back in 1988, the union - one of their last resorts in times of need - sold them down the river.
Faye Schrum said she hasn't forgotten how the union refused to pay for her trip to Washington, D.C., in March 1989, when she testified before a Senate committee investigating chemical hazards at Boeing and Lockheed plants.
Workers also remember how Bob Ripley, an outspoken IAM representative, was transferred from Auburn to the Everett facility when he voiced complaints about the conditions at Auburn. "He wanted to help me," said former Auburn worker Heidi Guevara, "but he was told he couldn't."
The lingering bitterness of sick workers belies the tough talk that was publicly delivered by Baker in the late '80s, when the Auburn crisis was making headlines on almost a daily basis. (Baker was recently convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to prison.)
A 1988 complaint filed by the district lodge alleged that Boeing knowingly exposed workers to toxic chemicals. The complaint, however, came at the urging of the union's East Coast headquarters. And sick workers-turned-MCS activists say they're still having to call the union's home office in Maryland because of what they perceive as inaction by the local.
"I've had to go over the local [because] they're having to deal with Boeing," said a former worker who asked not to be identified.
Some say they've had trouble getting the district lodge to so much as send a representative to a rally for MCS sufferers to be staged at the Department of Labor and Industries office on April 28 - Workers Memorial Day. The reticence is particularly interesting in light of a straw poll showing that fully one-third of union members have been affected by chemicals while working at Boeing.
(Only after a Free Press reporter called the lodge did union officials promise to send someone to the rally.)
Buck Cameron, an industrial hygienist with the district lodge, cited the union's "delicate" relationship with Boeing management, hinting that pushing the company too hard on health and safety issues might come back to haunt the union when it comes time to negotiate over wages and benefits.
"The union has to be very aggressive on this," he said. "But we are not in this to screw the company."
In defense of the IAM's performance, Cameron said the union is coming up to speed on chemically related illnesses.
"[The Auburn problem] was a great embarrassment to the company and probably the union - both sides," Cameron said.
Interestingly, Cameron pointed out (without being prompted) that the union is not contractually bound to assist workers with health and safety problems, though "ethically it's something that you can't avoid."
A similar statement was made by Charles Bradford, the IAM's director of occupational safety and health at union headquarters in Upper Marlboro, Md.
"They've gone beyond what they're required to do," Bradford said of local union officials, while hinting that the union has to simultaneously please two sets of masters - workers and Boeing management.
The union's excuse-making doesn't come as a surprise to Liz Moses, an industrial toxics specialist with the Seattle-based Washington Toxics Coalition.
"There are a lot of reasons that the union thinks it can't take on this issue, and I understand those reasons," said Moses, a leading MCS activist. "But there needs to be a renaissance in the labor community. Unions need to get back to their roots."

Related Stories/Resources:
Main Story: "It's All In Your Head"
Suicide Solution - One Woman's Way Out
The MCS Debate: A Medical Streetfight
On Top of Everything Else, Sick Boeing Workers Face Judicial Hurdles

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Contents on this page were published in the February/March, 1994 edition of the Washington Free Press.
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