It's about who gets to participate in the American Dream

LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES -- In Peoria, Illinois, last week at Caterpillar Inc., the United Auto Workers gave up after 17 months, ending the longest strike of the 1990s -- with no gain whatever for its 8,700 members.

In Seattle, 32,500 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers are still holding out after nine weeks on picket lines at Boeing Aircraft in what could be the most important big strike of the '90s -- or the last.


The voices of management and labor, and of academics and stock analysts, sound like this:

* "We're in the business of making profits for our shareholders. If we have to put jobs and technology in other countries, then we go ahead and do it." -- Peter Chapman, president of Boeing's chief American competitor, McDonnell Douglas' Chinese subsidiary.


Committed to China

* "We are committed to transferring technology [to China] and we have sufficient technology." -- Michael Zimmerman, president of Boeing China.

* "Boeing is moving rapidly toward assembling an aircraft and away from being a manufacturer. Many components, including the airframe, are now being outsourced. . . . Departure from traditional manufacturing will enable the company to increase its profit margins." -- Gary Reich, aerospace analyst, Prudential Securities.

Exporting jobs

* "This export of technology and jobs is why we're on strike today. Boeing used to make tail sections for the 737 in Wichita, but they moved the work to a military factory in Xian, China. Is this Boeing's definition of free trade, to have American workers compete with Chinese labor making $50 a month under military discipline?" -- Bill Johnson, president of Machinists' Local 751.

* "The Machinists' strike is really a debate about who gets to participate in the American dream in the 21st century." -- Stanley Holmes, labor reporter of the Seattle Times.

* "Each time a job is made unnecessary, the person who was filling that job is freed to do something else. . . . How many have the talent to become a Steven Spielberg, a Jane Austen or an Albert Einstein? . . . New technology will offer people a new means with which to express themselves. The information highway will open undreamed-of artistic and scientific opportunities to a new generation of geniuses." -- Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft and Seattle's richest man.

The balloon went poof


* "The Caterpillar strike is a big balloon that just went poof. If I represent management, and the workers want to organize, I can tell them: 'Look at what happened at Caterpillar. What good does a union do for you?' " -- Neil Bernstein, professor of labor law, University of St. Louis.

* "People are going to have to help themselves. They'll have to do it at the bottom. The corporation, the union and the political system are increasingly distrusted because they seem to have different interests than the people who work for a living." -- Stanley Arono- witz, professor of labor studies, City University of New York.

The Boeing strike began, to the surprise of both the company and union leaders, when workers voted down an agreement between their bosses and their leaders.

What the workers saw was a progression that drove their jobs farther and farther away. In Seattle, skilled IAM members average $17 an hour; non-Boeing employees making Boeing components in Foley, Alabama, average $8 an hour; non-Boeing employees making Boeing components in Poland average a little more than $5 an hour; non-Boeing employees in Mexicali, Mexico, average $1 an hour.

It's being 'outsourced'

By 1998, Boeing expects more than half (52 percent) of the components on its five jet airliners to be "outsourced."


A good chunk of that is mandated by contracts with foreign governments or companies that demand higher and higher proportions of manufacturing and assembly be done by their workers rather than Americans. More than 70 percent of Boeing's orders now are foreign -- most of that coming from poorer countries determined to get the jobs that build middle classes.

The deconstructed middle

The United States, of course, is deconstructing its middle class in the name of more corporate productivity and profits. It used to be said that such things led to a higher and higher standard of living. But that is not true anymore -- unless you are Bill Gates or a genius.

In Peoria, by the way, after the UAW called off the Caterpillar strike, a company vice president named Wayne Zimmerman announced that the company would not necessarily be taking back the strikers, saying:

"An immediate return to prestrike staffing of nearly a year and a half ago is simply not practical."

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.