Though labor unions have lost much of their leverage against giant corporations, they still retain political clout in Congress. This week, the Boeing unions clinched a big victory in their scramble to add protections for the thousands of their members being laid off.
The upshot: Boeing workers will be eligible for benefits for nearly twice as long as most other recently laid-off workers, under a program meant to protect workers hurt by foreign competition, not by virus-driven industry downturns.
Because of a union push, laid-off Boeing employees were this week ruled eligible for additional federally funded assistance under a program called Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) that offers extended unemployment benefits for up to two years while workers are enrolled in retraining courses.
Workers who would otherwise have run out of unemployment insurance but are enrolled in a training program will continue to get weekly benefit payments. And workers over 50 who find a new job at a lower wage can get a cash payment equal to half the difference between the worker’s new wage and previous wage, up to a two-year maximum of $10,000.
In a letter to members of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) union, District 751 President Jon Holden said the program will provide those losing their jobs “more options for a better future following layoff.”
Ryan Rule, president of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), told his members the program will “aid in their return to the workforce — and most importantly, provide their families an additional layer of resources to maintain their economic security.”
Even nonunion Boeing employees who are laid off can thank the unions, for they will reap the same benefit. And it will apply to anyone from Boeing laid off between May 5, 2019 and June 23, 2022.
Boeing said in May it would cut 9,840 jobs in Washington state by July 31 in a combination of buyouts and involuntary layoffs, the biggest chunk of a companywide reduction of almost 12,300 positions due to the huge aviation downturn caused by COVID-19’s impact on air travel.
In recent days it issued another 1,000 involuntary layoffs notices, including about 660 to workers in Washington state.
Most immediately, the TAA program will benefit about 5,000 members of the IAM and 1,500 members of SPEEA as well as 2,500 nonunion Boeing employees set to lose their jobs in the state.
The unions are applying to the government to have the TAA benefits extended to all aerospace workers at Boeing suppliers throughout the country.
With much of the U.S. economy in a pandemic-driven coma, millions of workers are jobless and dependent on unemployment benefits to keep food on the table.
At the end of June, federal data showed nearly 18 million American workers unemployed, up from about 6 million just before the shutdown of the economy induced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Washington state, almost 700,000 people are unemployed.
Many of those — self-employed or working for small businesses, from retail to service work to child care — lack any organized support.
They’ll be eligible for up to 59 weeks of unemployment benefits: 26 weeks of regular unemployment payments, plus 13 extra federal weeks and an additional 20 federal weeks that Washington just triggered due to the high unemployment rate.
On the TAA program, the benefits extend up to 104 weeks.
The IAM and SPEEA were able to marshal immediate support in Congress to win that extra boost.
The state’s congressional delegation, led by Sen. Maria Cantwell, wrote a letter to Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia urging him to grant the union request.
“These workers contribute to their local economies and support approximately 64,000 additional direct and indirect jobs in the aerospace supply chain throughout the state,” Cantwell wrote. “It is of paramount importance that these workers receive the retraining and re-employment resources available through TAA.”
Technically, TAA was set up to provide extra assistance to American workers whose jobs are moved outside the United States or because of an increase
in imports due to shifts in international trade.
IAM spokesperson Connie Kelliher said the union, in its successful petition for TAA relief, cited the outsourcing Boeing has done — including engineering work sent to Russia and India and 737 assembly work sent to a new manufacturing center in China — as well as the impact of “foreign government subsidies to Airbus that make for unfair competition.”
Of course, the current Boeing layoffs are actually driven by an invisible virus that has effectively grounded 90% of the airline industry, not the cited trade issues.
There is certainly a case for a similar federal program that specifically targets jobs lost to COVID-19. For now, Congress is still debating what, if any, further support it will give in the economic crisis.