Aerospace workers should pilot future of a great American industry

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Boeing employees work on a wing section of a 777X outside the final assembly plant in Everett in 2020. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

September marked the 86th anniversary of the beginning of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 751. The district came together to fight for dignity and fairness, resulting in the first labor agreement with Boeing one year later, in 1936.

The fight wasn’t just about Boeing. It was a battle to ensure that our union and Washington state would grow the aerospace industry, significantly impacting generations of working families through good-paying jobs and benefits. Today, IAM District 751 represents more than 26,000 workers in the aerospace industry.

Our industry is facing many challenges ahead. Challenges that existed before the onset of a pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in the aerospace industry. Last year at this time, thousands of workers in our state were unclear about their future, and some suffered the worst fate from the pandemic. More than 100,000 aerospace jobs were lost last year, many of them in our state. The aerospace industry is vitally important to our national security, our domestic supply chain, and our state’s economy.

The leadership of the IAM, along with U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and the rest of the Washington congressional delegation, spearheaded efforts to pass legislation to provide much-needed relief and help prevent even worse layoffs to workers in the aerospace manufacturing and maintenance, overhaul and repair industries.

The Aviation Manufacturing Jobs Protection Act, part of the American Rescue Plan relief legislation passed by Congress, provided $3 billion in payroll support funding to aviation manufacturers, allowing them to keep tens of thousands of aerospace manufacturing workers on their payrolls.

The Seattle Times recently reported that the Biden administration has issued $482 million from this relief legislation available to aviation industry manufacturers, to help them avert job or pay cuts in the pandemic. That includes $41 million to aerospace companies in our state. According to The Times, the largest recipient of the funds is Spirit AeroSystems, an IAM-represented company and a major Boeing supplier based in Kansas, which stands to receive $75.5 million that the government says will help protect 3,214 jobs.

As a result of this legislation and other actions, the Washington economy is rebounding. But we have to ask ourselves, where do we go from here?

The Washington congressional delegation and the IAM continue working on solutions to secure the aerospace workforce for the future and protect one of our last great manufacturing industries.

The Washington state aerospace industry has been essential for the renewed growth of the Washington economy. It is a $70 billion industry with more than 130,000 workers and supporting more than 250,000 jobs, according to the Washington Commerce Department.

We need to reassess the future of the last great American industry and ask ourselves whether we are doing enough to sustain our aerospace industry. We have heard from the Biden-Harris administration about their commitment to building back better. We know our congressional delegation has diligently worked to push through legislation to improve the aerospace industry.  

They kept their promise by delivering a “Build Back Better” plan to Congress that will impact generations of America’s working families by creating good union jobs that offer solid wages and benefits. Buy American rules included in that package will strengthen our U.S. aerospace industry and increase good-paying union jobs.

But we remain concerned that companies continue to transfer U.S. technology overseas and to move American jobs offshore. In a recent roundtable discussion with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and other area labor leaders, I called for immediate Chinese recertification of the IAM-built Boeing 737 MAX. I also outlined concerns over China’s growing aerospace footprint.

We stressed the importance of focusing efforts on worker-centered trade policy and sounding the alarm on transferring U.S. technology and jobs to China if we want to continue holding on to our No. 1 ranking in aerospace sales, exports, profits and employment. Chinese government subsidies to its aerospace industry create an unfair playing field.

We pledge to do our part to stay No. 1 in the world by investing in our state’s workforce and figuring out what role Washington aerospace workers will play in emerging technologies to reduce emissions in the aviation sector through improvements in aircraft technology and fuels and operational improvements.

We need to make sure that all efforts in this area are designed, engineered and built in the United States. These improvements should center on the U.S. aerospace industry and include good, middle-class jobs in all our communities. We also can ensure that research and development, test and evaluation of sustainable aviation technology remain here in the U.S. We should not see our technology given away to other countries for aircraft sales, creating competent competitors.

IAM District 751 has repeatedly called for an increase in registered apprenticeship programs. We were excited to receive a $10 million grant dedicated to training the next generation of aerospace workers while allowing greater access to women, people of color, military veterans and younger workers. These programs have the infrastructure to make sure that the skills learned are well-rounded and transferrable to many industries so that a worker can use them anywhere in the country.

Moving these solutions forward is how to build a better future that makes our state’s economy soar while protecting Washington state aerospace workers’ rights to organize, be safe at work and achieve economic justice.

Jon Holden: joined the Machinists Union (IAM) after being hired as a materials management specialist at Boeing’s Everett plant more than 24 years ago. He was elected president of IAM District 751 in 2014, representing more than 26,000 workers at Boeing and workers at aerospace suppliers, health care facilities and other industries.