'We've never been better,' Machinists at Boeing say

EVERETT — The skill level of District 751 Machinists has never been higher and that’s a major reason why the Boeing Co. would be smart to fabricate and assemble its new 777-X jet in Washington state.

That’s the message a group of union members delivered in August to consultants with the Revel Group, who as part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s aerospace plan are developing recommendations for statewide policies to ensure the industry’s long-term growth – and to ensure the 777-X is built here.

District 751 is part of the Washington Aerospace Partnership that hired Revel to do the study, and the union is committed to growing aerospace here.

“All of us believe we have a lot to offer,” said Larry Brown, the legislative director for Machinists Union District Lodge 751. “But we don’t want to leave a stone unturned.”

The most important thing Washington has to offer an aerospace company is a deep pool of the world’s best workers, the Machinists said.

“It’s about being able to trouble-shoot when something goes wrong,” said Jim Bearden, District 751′s administrative assistant. “Our mechanics can tell the engineers what they need to fix and how to fix it.”

Everett Machinists fall into two broad groups, the union members told the consultants. There are veteran Boeing mechanics who’ve spent two or three decades in the industry who have a wealth of knowledge, and another group of younger Machinists who have spent three to five years deeply immersed in solving the many problems of Boeing’s 787 program.

Today, the older Machinists have insights only experience can bring, while the newer ones are experts in the new techniques of building composite jets.

Put the two together and “we’re better than we’ve ever been, in terms of the knowledge base,” said Everett union Steward Dan Swank.

Boeing’s union-negotiated pay and benefits also ensure that  new employees coming in are very high-caliber, Swank said. About a quarter of the mechanics he works with, he said, have college degrees, but switched careers because they could earn more working at Boeing.

“That attracts good, talented people,” who’ve been quick to learn from the experienced veterans around them, Swank said.

Because of all this, Boeing is producing more 787s in Everett with fewer workers than at Boeing’s other 787s plant.

“You’re doing that because we’ve got tremendous skill and knowledge,” said union Steward Chris Novacek.

Washington does face challenges, the Machinists told the consultants.

Part of that is political, said Brown.

In the past Legislative session, the Republican-dominated state Senate rejected a transportation plan that had support from a broad coalition of business, labor and environmental groups, he noted. It also tried to derail funding for the state’s Office on Aerospace. 

Washington’s schools must also do a better job of teaching practical applications for math skills, Machinists like Work Transfer Rep Don Fike said.

High school graduates come into Boeing with good classroom knowledge of algebra and geometry, but they struggle to apply it to basic factory tasks, like calculating how to put six equally sized wholes equally spaced across a piece of metal, Bearden said.

The state as a whole would be better off it Washington’s schools offered more vocational training, Brown added.

“We need to give the 70 percent of kids who aren’t going to graduate with a four-year degree an opportunity to make a decent living,” he said. “There is support for this, but it needs to be at the Legislative level.”

Machinists said they’re confident Washington can put together a winning proposal for Boeing and the 777-X

“With some talking and partnering and politics, it’s achievable,” Novacek said.

Originally formed in 1935 to represent hourly workers at Boeing, District Lodge 751 of the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers now represents some 33,000 working men and women at 49 employers across Washington, Oregon and California.

To learn more about District 751, follow the Machinists News.

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