Workers Making Greater Demands

Article excerpt

DETROIT -- This Labor Day, thousands of workers will mark the holiday either on strike or thinking about walking a picket line.

Labor experts say despite agreements like the contract reached between Boeing and its machinists earlier this week, unions are growing more aggressive and more willing to walk out.

Nine consecutive years of economic growth, a string of high-profile strikes, and a chance to win back concessions from past contracts have put pressure on negotiators to bring back good deals.

"We can be an example to the labor movement," Bill Johnson, president of Aerospace Machinists Industrial District Lodge 751 in Seattle, said Wednesday after his union approved the Boeing contract. "You can take on a major corporation and be successful."

The Boeing machinists had struck twice during the previous three negotiations, including a 69-day walkout in 1995, and appeared to be ready to walk out this year. Instead, about 61 percent of the 44,000-member union voted to approve the deal.

The contract offers two annual wage increases of 4 percent and a third-year 3 percent raise, as well as a 10 percent signing bonus worth $4,400 to the average machinist. In addition, Boeing dropped demands for a seven-day work week and more worker contributions to health-insurance premiums.

Peter Feuille, head of the University of Illinois' Institute for Labor and Industrial Relations, said the Boeing contract was an example of unions taking advantage of the booming economy.

"Employers are having a hard time finding enough employees, so this is an opportune time to push up wages in the trenches," he said.

But other recent contracts agreed to by union leaders have been rejected by members who want better deals.

About 6,100 of 11,000 flight attendants at the St. Paul, Minn.-based Northwest Airlines Corp. voted last week to reject a proposal that would have raised their average pay by 14 percent. And this week, about 9,200 teachers for Detroit public schools went on strike, rejecting their leader's request for a contract extension.

One Northwest flight attendant who campaigned against the contract said his colleagues wanted to break a pattern of concessions to the company. Attendants took pay cuts for three years beginning in 1993 to help keep Northwest out of bankruptcy, and wages are now only 3 percent higher than before the cuts.

"All kinds of things have evolved to make this a position we've never been in before," said Andy Damis of Seattle. "We've got a tight job market and the pilots went on strike last year, so we think Northwest is really reluctant to go through that again. …