The continuous pressure from Pentagon policymakers on F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin to cut pension costs has finally borne fruit: workers at the fighter plant voted by a huge margin Sunday to go out on strike, citing proposed changes to pensions. Although the company offered members of the Machinists local at the west Fort Worth factory annual pay increases, a $3,000 signing bonus and various other inducements to accept a new contract, the rank-and-file were incensed by a proposal to restructure benefits and scale back pensions for any new hires. So even though controversy surrounding the F-35 fighter has already reduced planned production rates through 2017 by three-quarters, the union was so mad it voted to strike.
We certainly have come a long way since Thomas Edison decided to move his electrical-equipment plant from Brooklyn to Schenectady because employees had the gall to complain about having to work twelve hours per day, seven days per week. Now workers strike over the retirement benefits likely to be given to their descendants. As one plant employee told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Sunday, “No pension for new hires, that’s not good — what if my granddaughter wanted to work here?” Let’s hope his granddaughter has a backup plan, because with F-35 production rates being steadily scaled back, there’s going to be a lot less jobs than people thought in the future at the plant — and a strike certainly isn’t going to help matters.
In fairness to policymakers, it wasn’t just pension benefits that led to the Fort Worth strike. Workers were also upset about other issues, like changes in healthcare coverage that would have resulted in them paying more for medical services — you know, the same change former defense secretary Robert Gates was proposing for military retirees as he departed public service. But the strike does raise a delicate political issue for the Obama Administration. Is it really fair to be pressing contractors to cut pensions and other personnel-related costs behind the scenes while presenting yourself in public forums as a big friend of organized labor? As Lockheed Martin chairman Robert Stevens ponders when to begin turning over responsibilities to his successor, he probably isn’t eager to get in a fight with the Machinists union at the plant where his company’s most important product is built. But the government customer wants the F-35 to be more affordable, and as a CEO at another big defense company once told me, “When you want to save money in this business, you go after people.”
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