Last Boeing C-17 Leaves Long Beach Plant Killed by Union

C-17 sunset (DVIDSHUB / Flickr / Cropped / CC)
DVIDSHUB / Flickr / Cropped / CC

As former employees and retirees reminisced about how a union strike killed their jobs, the last C-17 military transport plane left Boeing’s Long Beach assembly plant, which had employed 35,000 workers a decade ago.

With the equipment sold and the last workers leaving at Boeing’s 1.1-million-square-foot factory, the company held a last celebration to say goodbye to the facility that for the last seven decades had been a mainstay of U.S. defense industry by providing tens of thousands of workers very “good jobs at good wages.”

The Douglas Aircraft Company, forerunner to McDonnell Douglas, began supplying the Air Force planes from the site in 1941, just before the U.S. entered World War II. When McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997, the C-17 Globemaster III–a monstrous four-engine military cargo jet–was in full production and the local economy was humming.

Once responsible for 50,000 jobs, the C-17 program accounted for only about 14,000 jobs throughout California by 2010. With military aircraft orders starting to dry up and the Great Recession hammering Long Beach’s economy, Boeing made demands that workers accept benefit concessions.

Although the company was willing to offer a 3.4 percent raise in pay, Boeing wanted a lower company pension contribution and higher employee medical co-pays to remain competitive against Europe’s Airbus.

U.S. orders for the $240 million plane had ended four years earlier, but the company had started to sell C-17s to fleets in Britain, Australia, Canada and Qatar. The Long Beach plant had just received a six-plane, $1.5 billion order from the United Arab Emirates to be delivered in 2012, and more orders were expected to flow in.

But on May 12, 2010, 5,000 members of the United Auto Workers Local 148 answered the call with 80 percent of workers voting against the company offer and going out on strike against Boeing at midnight–the first strike in 25 years. The next day, workers with picket signs lined Lakewood Boulevard 24 hours a day to shout epithets at the company management, and “Scab!” at workers who crossed the picket lines.

“We’ll be out here as long as it takes,” John Hobson, 62, a maintenance mechanic who had worked at the plant since 1980, told the Los Angeles Times at the time. “It could take two weeks or it could take two months.”

With 9.5 percent of Americans unemployed and 932,234 properties in foreclosure, industry analysts and the public were appalled that the UAW would walk out. The strike ended a month later, but the bitterness of the strike motivated Boeing to begin talks about terminating the C-17 program and shutting down the site.

When the plant officially closed in April 2014, it also caused the additional loss of 3,800 good jobs at good wages in Long Beach from companies that benefited from Boeing work.

When Obama officially ended U.S. purchases of C-17 in 2010, the administration claimed that America was entering an era of dramatically lower military engagement due to the end of the Cold War. The Arab Spring was supposedly bringing peace to the Middle East, and globalism was meant to reduce international tensions.

But in the last year, Russia has become expansionist; the Islamic State and Boko Haram have continued terrorizing the world; and China now says it owns a third of the Pacific.

As a result, C-17 “fleet wear tempo” is now running much higher than the Obama Administration originally forecast. This higher use rate has undermined the administration’s forecast that upgrades to America’s aging C-5 Galaxy super-heavy transport fleetcould cover any short term need for military “mobility.”

Boeing is running flat out with a massive backlog of 5,640 commercial orders, worth over $540 billion, and a huge and growing defense aircraft order book.

But despite the growing need for more capacity, Boeing seems to have no interest in ever assembling aircraft at Long Beach again.


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