The narrowly approved contract agreement between Boeing and its Washington state workforce will be hailed by some as a victory for the canny, hardball brinkmanship of Boeing’s management and the knuckle-under economic pragmatism of the International Machinists Union.
But the steep cutbacks in retirement and health benefits that tens of thousands of Boeing workers were forced to swallow have far larger implications for middle-class America.
Boeing’s stingy treatment of its highly skilled workforce offers a vivid example of how America’s new economy has created gaping economic inequalities and steadily squeezed the economic life out of the U.S. middle class over the last three decades, even as corporate profits and CEO pay have skyrocketed.
Boeing’s case epitomizes that sharp economic divide. For just as the company was wringing concessions from its workers, its board of directors approved a 50 percent increase in the company’s stock dividend and a $10-billion stock buyback that will richly reward investors and executives who get paid in Boeing shares.
Boeing contends that it is not the first to impose such concessions but that it is merely following the market.
True enough. In 1980, 84 percent of American workers at companies with 100 or more employees received lifetime pensions from their companies, and 70 percent got health insurance fully paid for by their employers. Today, fewer than 30 percent have lifetime pensions and only 18 percent have fully employer-paid health insurance.
What these numbers mean is that every year hundreds of billions of dollars in benefit costs have been shifted from company books to the pocketbooks and checkbooks of average Americans, helping to boost corporate profits and to leave roughly half of the baby boom generation facing near poverty in retirement.
Boeing’s new contract will accelerate that trend. And it’s not as if hard economic times forced Boeing to slash labor costs. Its profits and demand for its planes are at record levels.