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Two Months Later, Still No End in Sight for Striking Machinists

August 14, 1996

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Sue Pohlmann lost her truck, then nearly lost her house. After earning a good wage for 16 years, she’s bankrupt. She has no health insurance despite a history of asthma. If not for a neighborhood food pantry, she and her 2 1/2-year-old daughter might go hungry.

Pohlmann, 33, could end most of her financial misery and get back her $800-a-week job in an instant. All she has to do is cross the picket line at McDonnell Douglas, where she and other St. Louis Machinists have been on strike since June 5.

But she won’t.

``McDonnell Douglas can do what they want _ they can take everything away from me,″ Pohlmann said. ``But McDonnell Douglas is not going to break my pride. I vow to stand behind my union 100 percent.″

And she’s not alone in her hard-line stance, with thousands of her fellow Machinists vowing to stay on strike until issues concerning job security and outsourcing are resolved, said Matt Bates, a negotiator for the International Association of Machinists District 837.

``We’re very, very solid,″ Bates said. ``It’s tough, and I’m not going to say there haven’t been hardships. But people feel if they don’t make a statement now they may not be around in three years.″

The McDonnell Douglas Machinists are concerned about job security and outsourcing _ the practice of shipping off work to subcontractors and non-union plants. In 1990, 11,800 Machinists worked in St. Louis; today, there are 6,700.

The union wants a guarantee that current workers will not be laid off. Impossible, the company says, because of the volatile nature of an industry so reliant on government contracts.

A settlement seems no closer now than 10 weeks ago, when the strike began. Talks have been infrequent. The two sides met Tuesday, and some progress was made, they remain far distant to any resolution.

Meanwhile, McDonnell Douglas continues to make airplanes.

Inside the massive final assembly plant in suburban Hazelwood, Mo., workers perform duties ranging from intricate inspections of microscopic details to construction of airplane wings.

Engineers, executives, clerks and other office staff trained for up to two weeks to learn the Machinists’ tasks.

For many, the workday begins at 5 a.m. Around 11, some leave the assembly plant and head to their cubicles or small offices on the sprawling complex north of Lambert Airport.

About 2,000 temporary replacements have also been brought in.

``I’d say we’re close to 80 percent,″ company spokesman Tom Williams said. ``We expect to be catching up by December, if the strike goes on.″

Some company officials even believe the strike has made them look at the efficiency of their business.

``The people we’ve got out there now aren’t as skilled as the people outside (on strike),″ said Ken Heuschober, director of the sheet metal center at the plant. ``But we’re able to operate without all their prehistoric conditions. Through the strike we’ve gotten a lot smarter on how we need to operate to be more productive.″

The strike has been free of violence, but hardly amiable.

The company has accused the union of low-level harassment _ some nails in tires, but mostly yelling and gesturing at executives and replacements as they cross picket lines.

The union, meanwhile, has accused McDonnell Douglas of thuggery _ hiring security workers who have threatened strikers and forced the picket lines dangerously close to traffic.

But Williams said the company will be ready to forgive and forget once the strike ends.

``The biggest challenge is for us to get past that,″ he said. ``We will, but it’s going to be difficult, no question about it.″

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