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Aerospace welders fight for a decent raise, against company concessions

 

By BEN SOLIDARITY

Editors note: As of Friday Local 501 welders are back to work under an extended contract. We’ll inform readers should the strike resume. 

“Everyone sees what is obvious now. It’s not fair.”

Members of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 501 at the Arrowhead Products aerospace plant in Los Alamitos, Calif., are waging a high-stakes fight to win a fair wage increase and prevent the company from slashing their benefits and undermining seniority standards at the plant. Workers walked off the job last week on Thursday, Nov. 10, following attempts by the company to impose a concessionary contract upon them and a unanimous strike vote by the workers.

The roughly 55 to 60 striking workers are welders who make parts that are used by major aerospace companies.

Speaking on the phone on Tuesday, Nov. 15, Edgar Ramirez, a welder at the plant, explained that workers were compelled to take a stand to support their families. Winning a decent raise is particularly important for workers given the high cost of living in Los Angeles and the current sky-high inflation rate.

“A lot of us have mortgages, and we have kids,” said Ramirez. “At the end of the day, we just want what’s fair. Nobody wants things taken away from them, and we feel that the company can provide better pay for us—pay that matches other aerospace companies. That’s why we’re all out here, and that’s why we’re all united. Our vote to strike was unanimous. There hasn’t been that type of unity in many years. But everyone sees what is obvious now. It’s not fair. And we want it to be fair.”

Striking workers are demanding that the company provide them with “10-10-10”—10 percent raises for each year of a three-year union contract. Beyond that, workers are fighting an attempt by the company to increase their health-care costs, cut workers’ access to sick time and medical leave, and impose a punitive review system designed to undermine the seniority system at the plant.

Under management’s “final” contract offer, which led workers to strike, the company would have the ability to deny a worker their right to bid into a job they’re qualified for if the worker has prior write-ups. Workers see this as nothing less than an effort by the company to enforce a system of favoritism and undermine union solidarity. As Ramirez points out, “Our worry is that, if there is a guy that they don’t like for a particular reason or another, they would find a reason to write him up—something insignificant. And then they could prevent him from moving forward and changing departments. The whole gist of this new contract seems to be that they’re taking things from us. And what they’re giving us is minimal.”

Founded in 1937, Arrowhead Products supplies ducting systems and fuel lines that are used by Boeing, Northrup Grumman, Rolls-Royce, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and other big aerospace companies. As skilled workers in an industry that, by necessity, upholds exacting production standards, the striking workers take a great deal of pride in their work—and in the quality of the parts produced by all of the workers at the plant. Notably, Arrowhead workers manufactured fuel lines used in the massive SLS rocket that launched the Orion spacecraft into outer space on Nov. 16 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida as part of the first phase of NASA’s multi-billion-dollar Artemis mission.

The striking members of IUOE Local 501 are not the only union members that work at the Arrowhead plant. In addition to the strikers, the company also employs several hundred members of United Steelworkers Local 560L, who work as fitters, laborers, maintenance workers, and in other capacities. Workers from Local 560L have approved their contract with the company and are now inside the plant during their scheduled shifts. The company, for its part, has made a clear effort to divide workers in order to attack the welders and undermine the solidarity necessary for members of USW Local 560L to protect their interests in the future.

Despite this treacherous divide-and-conquer scheme by management, striking welders say they’re receiving support and backing from their brothers and sisters in Local 560L. “I think we’re getting support from the workers in the USW,” said Ramirez. “Guys have told us, ‘Hey, we’re going to bring you some food while you’re out there.’ Some of them have donated money to support us. Of course there are always people that think differently, but I think overall we’re getting support from our fellow employees.”

Beyond that, without the striking welders that are currently picketing on the quarter-mile sidewalk outside the plant, the company is incapable of producing product. As five-year worker Bunreat Chat explains, “No product gets moved unless it’s welded. So nothing’s moving right now because we’re not in there.”

Thus far this week, there have been negotiation sessions with the company and IUOE shop stewards on behalf of the strikers. At the same time, the company is attempting to intimidate the workers by sponsoring a scab “job fair” on Saturday in an attempt to hire “heliarc & journeymen welders,” among others. The striking workers think that this scab “fair” is likely a scare tactic, given the tight labor market and the highly-skilled nature of their jobs. Welders at the plant have to have professional welding certifications and pass rigorous production tests in order to work in production.

“That doesn’t seem to be a route that would work for them—to do a job fair and grab random Joes off the street,” said Chat.

It would indeed be disastrous for the company to attempt to use scabs to weld precision parts for space rockets, jets, and commercial airplanes. Nonetheless, the striking welders need support and solidarity from the labor movement in Los Angeles—and from supporters who stand for justice and dignity for the working class.

For their part, by waging their strike for fair pay and against concessions, the welders of IUOE Local 501 are providing an example of courage to the broader working class of Los Angeles. Just as we wrote at the conclusion of the inspiring 113-day strike at the Rich Products plant in Santa Fe Springs early this year, the strike at Arrowhead sends “a message to workers elsewhere: There is power in our unity as workers!” The working class produces all of society’s wealth. In order to reverse the unceasing attacks by the capitalist class on our lives and living standards—and in order, ultimately, to build a better world where the economy serves the needs of the people instead of generating profits for corporations and the rich—our class must stand together and support one another in our struggles. An injury to one is an injury to all!

Striking workers are asking supporters to help spread the word about their struggle. Supporters can also join the workers to picket in the morning and early afternoon outside the Arrowhead plant, located at 4411 Katella Ave., Los Alamitos, CA 90720.

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