The first woman organizer for the Machinists Union, Linda Lanham tries to cram twenty-five or twenty-six hours of work into a normal day. She combines political savvy with old-time religious fervor to sell the gospel of unionism.
I never wanted to work for Boeing because I felt that you would always be a number. I’ve always wanted to be an individual so I just stayed away from Boeing. Thought they’d just herd the cattle in, make ’em work so much, and herd ’em out. That kept me from getting a job there for years. Finally, because of my financial situation, I didn’t have a choice any more. I was divorced with three children. In the past I had worked as a tavern manager, restaurant manager, and dental assistant—none of which paid very well. So I figured I would have to tolerate Boeing because it was probably the best way to be able to take care of the kids.
But once I entered the company, I found out it was not like that at all. As long as you follow procedures, rules in the contract, and do your job, it’s a great place to work. You have ample vacation, ample sick leave. I think the things that the union has negotiated as far as benefits for you and your family are terrific.
To me it’s unbelievable that people with just a high-school education get the training they have to have and work the big machines. Since I had never done any type of machine work, it was amazing how they can take a raw piece of material and make a really neat part—a wing that’s huge. It’s way beyond your imagination that a small bracket or a huge skin goes on a plane. At least to me it is. If you see one part at a time, it’s like seeing a car disassembled. If you’re not mechanically inclined, which I’m not, it’s hard to see how it’s put together. When I go to Renton or Everett or step into a 727 or 747 when I’m flying somewhere, I look around and think, “Oh, I did that, I carried that part,” or whatever. But at Plant 2 you never saw a plane assembled, so you don’t really think about it.
I hired in as a dispatcher, which is a pretty traditional job for a woman. Dispatchers check parts into or out of an area. I worked hard there and got very good work evaluations. For evaluations you’re graded on a one to four; one is the highest you can get. A one or two is promotional level. My first evaluation was a two. Then I went to an even higher two. Then a grade five material position became available. I wanted the job, but they had already picked out another guy in my area for the position. I couldn’t figure out why. I was better qualified, had greater working abilities, and my knowledge was greater. I could really have taken them to the bank on that discrimination, but I didn’t. They gave me an offer for expeditor and him the material job. When I confronted my supervisor, he asked me why I’d rather be a material person than an expeditor. I said either one would be okay but material person was what I wanted to do. We talked for a while and I said I would take the expeditor position. Then I said, “Before I go, I want to ask you one question, and I promise you I will not take it any further. Just between you and me, is it because he’s a man and I’m a woman?”
He said, “Yes.”
Even though I promised not to take it any further, it still made me mad. The job itself was not that non-traditional. As far as the physical work, men used a jack or things to keep them from lifting. I could use the same jack. They weren’t gonna lift any more than I did.
In the long run being an expeditor didn’t hurt, because my priorities changed. I began to get involved in the union—got on every committee imaginable, campaigned a lot for people running for office. I geared myself more to union activities and less towards expediting. Union work was one way I could help people. Now I’m not saying the union is always right, but it definitely makes people’s standard of living better. And that’s important to me. I’ve been there before.
In District 751 there are twenty-five thousand men and seven thousand women. Because of this, back in nineteen eighty, the union leadership began to think they needed a woman organizer, not just men. Nine people applied for the job. After being interviewed by the international and the president of 751, I was appointed to the position. I think my working ability and the fact that I had some college helped me get the job.
Other women in the union were very jealous about my getting the job. I’ve probably had more pressure than any other time in my life. There were a lot of petty stories going around about how I got my job by making love to all the business reps and my boss. The first two months were pure hell. People wouldn’t talk to me and the rumors going around the plant were atrocious. It was so hurtful. In fact I got to the point of wondering if it was all worth it.
But with Reagan and national politics, it was more imperative than ever that we get organized. As far as Boeing is concerned, more and more jobs are being subcontracted to companies in the area that are unorganized. The machinists in a non-union shop get seven dollars and fifty cents an hour to thirteen dollars for our machinists. A lot of our electronics work is going to Macon, Georgia. Also with the new foreign trade and the new 767, I think we’re only doing about twenty percent of the work. Something has to be done.
And then we can’t forget the automation—new technology, robotics. Robotics are machines that can do the same work as a human. But they don’t need vacations, they don’t need to be paid, they don’t need sick leave. Robotics aren’t what people think. They’re not little tin men running around. They’re machines that do our work, and we’ll more and more be losing our jobs to them.
If robotics goes into the aerospace industry, we’ll end up like the automobile industry—without jobs. There’ll be no more machinists. Only waitresses, unemployed, welfare. Then our economy will go completely downhill. That’s why priority number one is to get organized and stop some of this. Otherwise we’re not gonna have jobs to worry about. We have to draw the line somewhere.
I just organized a company up in Everett. Those people were making four dollars and fifty cents an hour. The highest was seven fifty an hour for machinist. How can they make it with families? They have no benefits and a medical plan that isn’t worth anything. If they got sick, you might as well forget it—no sick leave. I don’t have the answer about what we can do about automation and new technology, but I do know something has to be done.
Being a union organizer is probably the hardest job there is. We’re always talking to people that are negative, that are against the union. With non-members at Boeing I think the bottom line is they don’t want to pay the dues. They’re getting the benefits anyway, so why pay the dues? They’re just very greedy about themselves. People in general aren’t educated about what the union does as a whole. The concept of “union goon” is overwhelming as far as the media is concerned. We only get coverage about strikes, killings, or embezzlements. We don’t get publicity about all the good things we do. The Machinists Union funds apprenticeships, scholarships, and the City of Hope Hospital, where people can get medical care without paying a dime. As far as 751 goes, we have an alcoholic and drug program, a human rights program, and the women’s committee to help with problems. I think there’s an uneducation as far as the services we provide.
I think that’s because we’re ruled by the corporate business and have been for years. The blue-collar worker has never been recognized as having made great feats—only the businessman. But we in the Machinists Union are working to change that.
I work a lot of hours—many nights—because I talk to the employees after they get off work. Mainly I get involved by someone at a subcontractor calling and saying they want a union. When they get three other people together, they form an in-plant committee. It just grows from there until they have enough people for a petition. We like to have sixty percent of the people sign cards indicating an interest in the union before we call for an election.
The company can do many different things to try and stop the union. There are more and more firms that specialize in union busting. Companies can hire one of these firms to help them defeat the union. One of the ways they do that is what we call the “sweetheart” approach. They say, “Why didn’t you tell me you were unhappy? I will give you this, I will give you that; all you have to do is come to me.” Another way is harassment, particularly threatening the jobs. The fear of losing your job is one of the biggest union-busting tactics. People know they have to have the job for their own livelihood and their own families. Threatening them if they continue organizing is an unfair labor practice, but often it makes the people so fearful they don’t even tell us what is going on. They just kind of fade out of the picture. The company can also threaten to close the plant down completely. I had that happen to me once. Someone contacted me and said if a union is ever organized in his plant, he will close down totally. They need to recognize that closing up and relocating costs a tremendous amount of money and probably isn’t feasible. Further, any threat is an unfair labor practice, since workers have the right to organize as long as it’s not done on company time.
It is crucial that a person document any unfair labor practice of the employer so we can file charges on them. Anyone who is being threatened has my complete sympathy, because I know the fear of losing your job. If they do get fired, we will file unfair labor practices, and, as far as the District 751 organizers are concerned, will do everything possible to find them a job. I think if it got down to it, we would give them complete support. Our president is very compassionate.
The first shop I organized was an experience I will never forget. It was so exciting. If I never do another one, it was worth it to see those people making four fifty and seven fifty an hour—with families—putting their jobs on the line. They stuck together from day one and no one ever faltered. We had the same amount going in as came out after voting. It was inspiring. All they wanted was a better standard of living. Now we’re working on a contract, their first, which will give them that. That’s what my job is all about—giving people a better life.