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Boeing In The Blood: A Machinist Family Considers Its Options

KUOW Photo/Carolyn Adolph
The Simmonds Family: Andrea, her husband Odin (a machinist at Boeing) and his father Don (a former Boeing employee).

For many Boeing machinists the battle to land the 777X production line is deeply personal, and generational.

Boeing runs in the blood of many families, who have tied their fortunes to that of the company.  Andrea Simmonds’ family is like that. A grandfather of hers was a 747 pilot.  Now Odin, her husband, builds the 747. He’s a machinist, like his father Don before him, who once worked the 777 line.

As a young single father, Don Simmonds raised four children in a rented apartment and supported his ex-wife on a machinist’s salary and a lot of overtime. He left Boeing at age 55, after his knees were crushed in an accident on the shop floor.

Despite that experience, he supported his son Odin Simmonds’ decision to go to Boeing after his work in construction dried up. Odin Simmonds had retrained as underwater dive welder, but then that work disappeared too.

Boeing  is “a place to be able to fly high as you can if you are let and trained and assisted on the way,” Don Simmonds said. “But I had to tell him: It’s a great career place if you can make it past the first three layoffs."

So far Odin Simmonds is still at Boeing. His work now includes attaching the tail-fin of the 747 to the body of the plane.

He stands up to his chest in the hole in the roof of the plane. “And it’s my job from the internal side of the airplane to make sure everything’s lined up before they drop the vertical fin onto the airplane" he said. "With the hole just big enough for your shoulders to fit into you’re counting on that crane operator to be dead center.  ”

Odin Simmonds makes $20 an hour, below the machinist average of around $30 an hour. It’s not much money with three children to support. It’s Andrea Simmonds’ job at a nonprofit that covers the mortgage on their home in Monroe. 

But if all goes well, Odin Simmonds will top out in a few years at $35 an hour – about $73,000 a year before overtime. Beyond the salary, the Boeing package has always meant a safety net for the family: a guaranteed pension and low-cost health insurance. 

“Boeing’s wages when you get to the top of the wage scale, the benefits they have, is one of the few remaining companies that’s offering a middle class lifestyle for a blue collar worker who doesn’t have a college education,” said Leon Grunberg, a sociology professor at the University of Puget Sound and a co-author of a book on Boeing’s relationship with its workers.

But that’s been under attack for years, and with the 777X contract proposal, Odin Simmonds said the sense of insecurity is growing. He said the company’s first contract proposal in November was “a slap in the face.”

Among the problems is Boeing’s demand to raise the worker's share of health care premiums. Odin Simmonds said that would mean an additional $400 a month his family would have to pay. “I don’t have an extra $400 a month in my budget," his wife said. "Who has that?"

Boeing and the machinists already have a contract. The extension the company wants workers to sign would reduce employee benefits in exchange for the 777X production line.

Andrea Simmonds said she doesn’t want to make that trade. “Why would a family do that? That’s one of the only reasons why working for Boeing is worth it.”

Boeing said these cuts are necessary to preserve the company’s future in a competitive, global market.

Leon Grunberg  said unions, like the one for the machinists, know they’re among the last to have benefits like pensions. He says they don’t want to see those benefits disappear altogether. “It’s really one of the last defensive quixotic battles to defend the middle class for the blue-collar worker.”