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Mike Elk: Boeing workers new contract a blow to worker pensions nationwide

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

In an update to a story The Real News has been following closely, Boeing workers in Washington State voted last week to approve a new contract that includes significant concessions around their pensions plans, starting in 2016. By a narrow margin, members of the Seattle area machinists union voted to accept the new contract after Boeing threatened to take the production of its new 777X aircraft out of the state.

This is machinists local 751 spokesperson Connie Kelliher reacting to the vote on Bloomberg TV.


CONNIE KELLIHER, SPOKESPERSON, DISTRICT LODGE 751, INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF MACHINISTS: The vote was placed on a day when nearly a third of our members were on vacation. It was announced after many had already left on the holiday break. We heard over the weekend many of them are calling for a recount or a revote.

The fact is, it passed by a very narrow margin, but not even half of the members had voted to approve it, and that would be the smallest majority we’ve ever had to approve something that has long-term ramifications for our membership.


NOOR: Now joining us to discuss this is Mike Elk. He’s a staff writer for In These Times. His recent piece is “Obama Administration Stays Quiet as Boeing Strikes Major Blow to Pensions”.

Thank you so much for joining us.

MIKE ELK, STAFF WRITER, IN THESE TIMES: Great to be on the show.

NOOR: So, Mike, talk about your reaction to the vote. It wasn’t a popular vote for the machinists. It was approved by a very narrow margin. And what this means for pensions for workers around the country.

ELK: Yeah, it’s obviously not a very popular vote, and it means very bad things for what’s happening with pensions in this country.

Under the Obama administration, the last of the remaining corporations that offered defined benefit pension plans, which are much less risky than 401(k)s, in which workers have to invest in the stock market, have eliminated them entirely. We’ve seen General Electric do this. We’ve seen Honeywell do it. We’ve seen Verizon. And now we’ve seen Boeing, a major U.S. corporation.

And typically what happens is that employers follow the lead of other employers. And the machinists union up there in Seattle was one of the tougher unions around. They’ve been on a strike in 2005, a strike in 2008. So this was a very tough union, and they were able to get these concessions out of them.

And part of this was that the international union, over the objections of the local union leadership, pushed this vote. Why they pushed it, it’s unclear. But, you know, right now the president of the IAM, the machinists, is facing a big leadership challenge, and this is one of the big issues is why were they pushing this over the objection of the workers that actually work there. So they pushed this vote.

The government of Washington State was also very supportive of this vote, passed by only a few hundred votes. And it’s important to note they pushed it two days after the holidays and they announced it last-second. So now a number of machinists are challenging it. So there might be another vote again.

But this is obviously a very troubling sign. And I think in more and more union negotiations we’re going to see even more of an acceleration of the trend of asking for the elimination of defined pensions now that a union as tough as the one in Boeing gave in.

NOOR: So you mentioned the Obama administration, a Democratic administration. Washington State recently voted to give Boeing another massive tax break, totaling nearly $9 billion, also controlled by the Democrats. And you mention this, the union, the international union leadership kind of pushing this contract. What does this say about Democratic politics today and large unions and their leadership and comparing their interests to that of working people?

ELK: Well, you know, I think it’s a classic case of business unionism, of leaders that think they know what’s better than the members, as opposed to asking their members, who were actually going to take the contract, what kind of risks they want to take. And I think we see that a lot with the Democratic Party is that we see these elite relationships.

President Obama has said nothing about this situation here. Nothing at all. He said nothing about the loss of defined pensions over the period of his administration, even though a massive [number] of corporations have–seek to eliminate them for workers. Instead, the president goes around and he jokes in public that Boeing should give him a gold watch because he’s the top salesman.

Now, if President Obama wants to be an advocate for Boeing, I think a lot of advocates of workers, like Dean Baker and others, would say that President Obama should also be an advocate for employees. But I think, as Dean Baker brings up in my article and other people bring up, the Obama administration just really does not care about retirement security. It’s focused on elite agenda of its own. Indeed, instead of trying to shore up retirement security, Obama administration’s pushing for chained CPI, which would be, essentially, a cut, according to the AFL-CIO.

NOOR: And some of the responses I’ve seen online to this vote was that, you know, it wasn’t that bad. The workers traded some pension benefits for job security. What’s your response to that?

ELK: I mean, I think it’s up to the folks who’ve got to live under that contract. But I think at the end of the day that it’s going to be bad, ’cause, you know, they’re going to ask for this now; what are they going to ask for in the future? So I think there’s going to be a lot of problems.

NOOR: Mike Elk, thank you so much for joining us.

ELK: No problem.

NOOR: You can follow us @therealnews on Twitter, Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor.

Thank you so much for joining us.


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A native of the East End of Pittsburgh, Mike Elk is a Sidney award winner and a lifetime member of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild.  As a pioneering leader in the digital media unionization movement, he has been profiled by NPR, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Newsweek, and Pacific Standard.

As an investigative reporter, Mike Elk’s work has been featured everywhere from the front page fo The New York Times to being debated by Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg on ABC’s The View. His work was credited by the Obama Administration for leading to an end of the use of the subminimum wage for the disabled workers and a massive pay raise for the domestic violence survivor advocates on 48 Army bases across the country. Speaking of his reporting covering the lockout of Honeywell uranium workers, Daily Show Co-Creator Lizz Winstead said “Mike Elk is the new John Wayne. I believe he is the real Matt Taibbi”.

At age 22, his first job was working as a field staffer for President Obama’s campaign in rural Western Pennsylvania. Afterward, he followed the President to Washington, D.C., where he heeded the President’s call to his young staffers to hold him accountable and became a labor reporter. He spent all eight years of the Obama Administration based out of Washington, D.C.  crisscrossing the country, visiting over 30 states, covering strikes, lockouts, and tragic workplace deaths.

He has worked as a workplace safety expert for MSNBC, as an investigative reporter for In These Times Magazine, and has also written for The New York Times, Washington Post, and Reuters. He is co-author of the book “We Are Wisconsin”.

At the age of 28, he rose to be the senior labor reporter on largest labor desk in the country when he co-founded POLITICO’s labor desk. After being illegally fired for union organizing at POLITICO, Mike used his NLRB settlement money to move to Chattanooga, Tennessee to found Payday Report

As the son of UE Director of Organization Gene Elk, he prefers to hide the fact that he attended a university as elite as Bucknell on a full scholarship. During college, he spent a year half in Brasil, where he covered the landless workers’ movement and the fallout of the drug war. He speaks Portuguese.

When Mike isn’t reporting on workers, he can be found listening to Sharon Jones, cooking salmon, and talking about the Civil War. He can be reached at or on twitter @MikeElk.