23 November 2005
O|ne thing Susan Cutler has learned standing on the side of the road with a picket sign in her hand is that, when you take on the world's largest aerospace company, people tend to side with you.
Call it the David vs. Goliath syndrome.
She and her colleagues just prefer to call it solidarity -- in the form of cash donations, free food and other support.
They are among about 270 local members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers striking against The Boeing Co. over a contract stalemate.
"It's amazing how much support we've gotten out here," said Cutler, a veteran Boeing technician and one of the strikers. "Someone stopped and gave us a bunch of $10 gas cards. Restaurants have dropped off free food. An elderly lady donated $50, and a neighbor gave $200."
The main issues, according to union members, are the company's proposals to increase workers' out-of-pocket costs for health care benefits and to cut retirement health care benefits for workers hired in the future.
"We have not gone back to the (bargaining) table, so there is no change," Boeing spokeswoman Tina Lange said Tuesday. "We feel we've made our best offer."
The rocket workers are among about 1,500 Boeing machinists nationwide who went on strike Nov. 2, stopping work on the launch of several space probes and satellites.
Tuesday, the union began tapping into a strike reserve fund that will pay the strikers about $150 a week to help them pay their bills and living expenses during the stalemate.
"We're willing to stay out one day longer than the company is willing to wait," said Bob Wood, a spokesman for the union.
Meanwhile, Boeing managers are filling in for the striking workers to meet a Dec. 1 deadline for delivering the third-stage engine for a rocket scheduled to launch a plutonium-powered space probe on Jan. 11 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The striking workers contend the replacement workers are not as well-trained, posing a possible safety risk.
"It worries us," said Terry Norton, one of the strikers.
Ray Lugo, deputy director of launch services at Kennedy Space Center, said the union's safety concerns were checked out by NASA and the U.S. Air Force.
"We chased down every single allegation made by the union leadership," Lugo said. "All of them were minor incidents that posed no additional safety risks."
Wood said there are no negotiations scheduled, and the strike reserve fund has $156 million in it.
That's not including donations the strikers have received from individuals and local businesspeople who support their cause.
Other workers at the Kennedy Space Center and elsewhere have donated money, union officials said.
But the $150-a-week strike fund payments and the donations won't come close to their regular pay.
"It's going to be a sparse Christmas," said Norton, a technician who has worked for Boeing and McDonnell Douglas on the Space Coast for 19 years.
He and several other union members picketed Tuesday in the chilly wind outside Boeing's local offices off U.S. 1, south of Titusville. Each day, they start arriving at 5 or 6 a.m., and stay in shifts of at least four hours until about 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
The strikers also are taking shifts picketing 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including Thanksgiving, at three entrances around Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center.
About 10 or 11 union members have crossed the picket line to continue working.
"We'll deal with them internally when this is over," said Jeff Rainey, a local business representative for the union.
Norton won't be crossing the picket line. Since his wife died, the Port St. John resident has been raising his two teenagers on his own. Despite the financial strain the strike is putting on his family, Norton said he is doing it as much for future Boeing workers as he is for current ones.
The company's "statement is they don't care what happens to the people who come in after us, but we do care," Norton said. "It probably won't be my kids working for Boeing, but somebody's kids will be out here, and they'll have nothing for benefits."
Ron Woodcock, an eight-year Boeing employee on strike, said the union has made concessions on several previous contract negotiations after the company claimed to be having "hardships," but members decided to take a stand this time.
"They should start giving benefits to the workers who send up the rockets, instead of the CEOs who sit in the office," Woodcock said.