Union members have rights denied most U.S. workers

SEATTLE — Members of Machinists Union District Lodge 751 working at the Boeing Co. enjoy rights and benefits most working Americans don’t have — thanks to their union contract.

AuburnLaura6“These rights are empowering,” said Laura Ewan, who is an attorney with Schwerin Campbell Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt, a Seattle law firm that represents District 751 and 50 other unions nationwide.

“There are hundreds of benefits in here,” she said, holding up a copy of the union’s collective bargaining agreement with Boeing. “You have a lot of rights related to wages. And you guys have education benefits as good as any I’ve ever seen in any other workplace.”

Ewan was one of the lawyers who presented workshops on union workers’ rights at the IAM 751 Town Hall meetings in Auburn, Everett, Renton and Seattle this fall. Those workshops were followed by question-and-answer sessions with IAM 751 President Jon Holden and other union officers.

One of the biggest advantages to a union contract is the fact that you can’t be fired on a whim, Ewan said.

A lot of people assume that your employer has to have a valid reason to fire you, she said, but if you’re an “at will” employee who doesn’t have a union contract, that’s simply not true.

Ewan pointed to an example in Illinois, where a man was fired for wearing a Green Bay Packers tie to work at a place where the boss was a Chicago Bears fan.

The termination was legal because the Packers fan was an at-will employee, Ewan said.

But under the “just cause” provisions of  a union contract, “your employer has to have an actual reason to fire you,” she said.

“They’ve got to have clear rules. They’ve got to have an investigation. They’ve got to have progressive discipline,” Ewan explained. “Without a union, your boss can fire you for wearing a shirt he doesn’t like.”

When workers have a union, they also have a right to have a union steward go with them whenever they are called into a meeting that could result in discipline. Ewan encouraged IAM 751 members to take advantage of that.

“When in doubt, when something seems weird, go to your shop steward,” she said.

AuburnLaura3District 751 also has very strong safety language in its contract with Boeing, including Section 16.1 of the contract — commonly called the “imminent danger” clause — which allows workers to refuse a work assignment and immediately call for a safety investigation if they feel they are at danger of losing life or limb.

“You have much clearer rights than somebody else at another company who might have to muddle through until OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) shows up,” she said.

Back on the topic of shirts management doesn’t like, Ewan said the recent proliferation of “We Cower to No One” t-shirts inside Boeing factories is a classic example of how workers united can push back against arrogant managers.

One person wearing that kind of shirt could expect to lose their job, she said, but when nearly 10,000 Machinists buy and wear the shirts to work, it’s a different story. “Since you’re all acting together, you’re protected by the law.”

District 751’s protests over Boeing CEO Jim McNerney’s “cowering employees” insult are a textbook example of the kinds of things union workers can do but non-union workers can’t, Ewan said.

“You got attention for this thing throughout the entire nation,” she said. “By showing you were going to cower to no one, he (McNerney) had to give a public apology. The national press coverage was intense.”

District 751’s stewards and business reps are “some of the strongest and most-determined that we see,” Ewan said. “They know how to fight for your rights and know how to work with management to get things resolved.”

They have to be good, she said. “Your employer is not looking out for your rights.”

“These rights that you have are empowering, but they’re only effective if you stand up for them,” Ewan said. “For all of us, it’s our job to make sure our rights our protected. It’s our job to hold management accountable.”

Originally formed in 1935 to represent hourly workers at Boeing, District Lodge 751 of the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers now represents more than 33,000 working men and women at 51 employers across Washington and California.

Think a union contract would be good for you? Click here to talk with an IAM 751 representative about how to join the Machinists Union.

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