By Bryan Corliss
March 20, 2020, © Leeham News: Sources close to Boeing tell Leeham News & Analysis that Machinists Union members in Puget Sound have shut down production on several occasions this week over fears that the corona virus had made their work stations unsafe.
According to two insiders, workers at sites across Puget Sound are invoking Article 16 of the IAM’s contract with Boeing, which is commonly known as the “Imminent Danger Clause.” It gives workers the ability to shut down work in their area if they have a reasonable concern that they’re working under conditions likely to cause death or serious injury.
Boeing management has been responsive, the insiders said, quickly bringing in environmental health and safety experts to perform assessments and order extensive cleaning in areas where potentially infected people may have worked.
But it’s reasonable to assume that these temporary shutdowns for cleaning will lead to further delays in production, and that they will increase in frequency as the pandemic spreads – particularly after the union sent a reminder to its stewards about the safety language in their contract.
IAM District Lodge 751 in Seattle sent the message Wednesday night, reminding stewards that they and their members have the ability to bring work to a halt if they feel conditions are unsafe.
“It is appropriate to utilize the structure (of the) contractual Article 16 ‘Imminent Danger Stop Work’ clause to ensure the area is made safe before work can proceed,” the message to stewards said.
Informally, the message from union leadership is “if you don’t think it’s safe, pull the red card,” one insider said. (The union distributes red-colored cards to members with instructions on how to invoke their Article 16 contract right.)
The cleaning is done by IAM-represented janitorial staff. The union said it has demanded that they receive adequate training and full protective equipment before they’re assigned to potential Covid-19 clean-ups.
“These members should consider using Tyvek suits or coveralls, masks, gloves and eye protection to make them feel comfortable in the workplace,” the email to stewards said. “Although the company says use of masks is not required when deep cleaning these areas, if you feel more comfortable with a mask, we recommend you request it.”
Boeing’s Puget Sound factories are scattered throughout the United States’ original corona virus hot spot. America’s first confirmed case of Covid-19 was a man in Everett, who recovered. The first deaths were in Kirkland, WA, which is just 20 miles away. As of Thursday night, 74 Washington state residents had died from the virus – more than a third of the nation’s total.
As Covid-19 has spread through the Boeing workforce – on Tuesday, the company confirmed there were nine cases among Puget Sound workers, out of 11 cases companywide – there has been increasing tension among the company’s employees. While administrators, supply chain managers and some engineers and office workers can telecommute, you simply can’t build an airplane from home.
Among hourly workers, there’s said to be a split between those who are afraid of coming to work — who are demanding a factory shutdown — and those who are panicked at the idea of losing paychecks, so they’re pleading for their workplaces to stay open.
At the union’s urging, Boeing has agreed to allow workers to take unpaid leaves of absence if they’re afraid of getting infected, or if they are facing child-care issues now that all Washington schools have been closed by order of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. (Previously, there were significant restrictions on unpaid leave, and people who didn’t show up to work were fired.)
In its note to stewards, IAM 751 said it was lobbying for Boeing to provide masks to workers who aren’t able to get six feet away from their nearest co-workers. There are perhaps thousands of workers who would fall into this category, particularly in final assembly, but also in areas like the Everett wiring shop, where workers sit around tables stringing miles of wire through brackets.
Union leadership seems to be focused on keeping the workplace safe for those who want to come to work, while making it possible for others to stay home without getting fired, one insider said.
Boeing has committed to thoroughly cleaning areas where the people with confirmed cases worked, as well as the work areas of people who came in contact with them, the union told stewards. It also has stepped up disinfecting of areas around the factories, including hand rails, door knobs, elevator buttons, flat surfaces in cafeterias and other high-touch surfaces.
The company and union both are encouraging workers to wash their hands and maintain six feet of distance from other people as much as possible.