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Locked-Out Firefighters Picket Boeing

Above photo: Emily Harm – Whidbey Island Paramedics IAFF Local 5133.

The aerospace giant Boeing locked out 125 firefighters across multiple facilities in Washington state May 4 after contract negotiations broke down.

“We want to be out there working and protecting the community of Boeing employees,” said firefighter Jon Riggsby, vice-president-elect of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local I-66. “But the company won’t allow us.”

Boeing firefighters are on hand for fueling, takeoffs, and landings. They also respond to any medical emergencies at company facilities in Seattle, Everett, Renton, Auburn, and Moses Lake.

They’re the first line of defense to prevent the spread of flame and toxic emissions from the combination of materials used to build aircraft such as the Boeing 737, Triple Seven, and others as part of military contracts.

The lockout comes after Local I-66 members voted down two Boeing contract offers, and after conversations with a neutral mediator.

Members say it’s tough to retain qualified firefighters when the starting pay is just $25 an hour. They earn 30 percent less than their counterparts in local and municipal fire departments; they’re demanding a raise to reach parity.

“Up in this area in King County, surrounding Seattle, an adult with no children would need to earn $30.08 an hour to make a living wage,” said Riggsby, citing the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator. “The salary range of the newer guys coming in at $25 an hour is only up to $1,000 above being eligible for food stamps.”

Another sticking point: it takes Boeing firefighters 14 years to reach top pay. Most of the workforce started in the last four years; only 20 percent have reached the top rate.

The union is demanding to shorten the progression to six years. Boeing’s best offer would instead drag it out to 19 years, with a top rate of $41. Meanwhile nonunion Boeing firefighters in Charleston, South Carolina, and Mesa, Arizona, already top out in five.

‘Totally Disrupted’

Firefighters said the company’s nickel-and-dime approach at bargaining isn’t commensurate with the important safety role they play.

“Boeing is talking about ‘Safety is a priority,’ but they locked out their only fire department on site,” said Thor Peterson, a 17-year firefighter with six years at Boeing’s Seattle facility. “We’ve had guys doing building inspections and smelled smoke and found a fire on the roof of one of our buildings just by walking through it.”

An internal document exclusively shared with Labor Notes by an anonymous source found that its on-site firefighters had saved Boeing nearly $9 billion in 2020 alone. The company refused to confirm this figure.

The document also said they had “4.2 EMS responses daily” and “0.2 airplane incidents daily.”

Nearly 67,000 employees work at Boeing’s Washington production facilities around the clock on three shifts, according to The Seattle Times.

“I got chemicals in my eyes in December,” Boeing hazmat technician Billi Starzman told local news station KIRO 7. “These guys were here within a minute to help me. If they hadn’t been in and I had to wait, who knows what would have happened.

“We’re not being told the truth,” she said. “We’re being told there’s a robust contingency plan and that service won’t be disrupted. Service is totally disrupted. You need their expertise. You need the equipment that’s on their rigs that now can’t roll because there’s nobody to roll their rigs to the scene.”

Some of the firefighters even have special training from NASA to retrieve astronauts from the Boeing Starliner.

Shot Across The Bow

Among those who have come out to picket lines to support the locked-out firefighters are Teamsters, Boeing engineers (SPEEA), longshore workers, electricians, ironworkers, and pipefitters.

The lockout looks like a shot across the labor movement’s bow. Boeing’s contract with Machinists District Lodge 751 and Local Lodge 63, covering 32,000 members in Washington and Oregon, will expire September 12.

“Come to find out, they’re also trying to put the Machinists on the same contract as us,” said Peterson, referring to the 19-year progression to top pay; it’s currently six years for Machinists members. “So I’m currently fighting for them as well.”

It’s the first full-scale bargaining between Boeing and the Machinists in 16 years, after the company bullied members into accepting multiple extensions of the previous contract. Members are still mad.

The Machinists are demanding a 40 percent wage hike and a say in the production process, in the form of a seat on the company’s board of directors. The union has already scheduled mass strike authorization votes for July 17.

Safety Crisis

Boeing has been embroiled in controversy over its safety practices after the door panel blew out on an Alaska Airlines 737 Max jet in January, and after the suspicious death of a company whistleblower.

The Federal Aviation Administration opened an investigation into Boeing May 7 after the company admitted that workers at its South Carolina plant had falsified inspection records on 787 planes.

“This fight is not about me,” said Peterson. “It’s about every Boeing worker here. And if my voice can be heard just a little bit and make a little bit of leeway, at least I know I didn’t go down without a fight.”

President Joe Biden has come out in support of the firefighters, saying he is “concerned” that Boeing had locked them out. “Collective bargaining is a right that helps employers and employees,” he wrote on Twitter, now known as X. “I encourage folks to return to the table to secure a deal that benefits Boeing and gets these firefighters the pay and benefits they deserve.”

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