Column: Aircraft worker had retirement lined up -- and then the boom came down

Ron Magee admires his five-acre property in the hills above Murrieta, which he may lose after being laid off from his good-paying aerospace job of 34 years.
(Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

Some people take the days as they come, passively accepting the circumstances of their lives.

Not Ron Magee.

The onetime boxer and Lakers true believer is a hustler, a scrapper, a Grade-A American dreamer willing to take on risk in pursuit of rewards.

And he had it all lined up, too.

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Magee, 60, had a good-paying job building C-17 cargo planes in Long Beach. There was virtually unlimited overtime, all the better to finance the glorious retirement that was so close, he could already see himself in the hammock.

He had a five-acre homestead in the boulder-filled hills above Murrieta, with squirrels jackknifing through California oak trees.


And he had a lovely new wife after a wrenching and costly divorce.

Then came the news he and his colleagues had long dreaded in an industry that has been shrinking for decades.

“They called us into the cafeteria over in Building 54. I could tell something was not right,” Magee said of the meeting called by management late last summer.

“And then they say, ‘We’re gonna have to close the plant.’ And people were like, ‘What? Oh my God.’”

Magee and his buddies aren’t necessarily the last of a breed, but they are part of a fading era in the great history of aerospace manufacturing in Southern California.

Their union jobs were the gold standard in local labor because with no more than a high school diploma and a strong back, you could live a comfortable life. Those jobs built houses and neighborhoods. They paid for station wagons and packed the schools with kids who went on to college.

At 40 bucks an hour, working six and seven days a week and grabbing all the overtime he could get, Magee brought home as much as $140,000 or $150,000 a year.

But at 60, his body arthritic from the physical toll, the ride was ending.

“I was in shock,” said Magee, who still shivers when he thinks back on the day he got the lowdown. Employees were told it might take until September of 2016 to finish the last C-17 carrier, but they’d be laid off in waves of 100 or so over the course of the year.

Magee couldn’t bear to tell his wife the news, especially given the bombshell she had for him earlier in the year. She was pregnant, to Magee’s great surprise. So now he’d have a baby just as he began closing in on retirement. It might have penciled out if he’d been able to pound rivets until Social Security kicked in, but now what?

Magee, with 34 years of seniority, figured at least he’d be one of the last workers to leave. But that didn’t go the way it was supposed to, either. He got the ax Nov. 21, Happy Thanksgiving. And to think, said Magee, that they used to get holiday hams.

So how goes the job search?

“Nothing has panned out, and everyone’s trying to get the same few jobs out there,” said Magee. “I got my resume up on Monster. That goes out to all the companies, Northrop in Palmdale, all of them. I mean, if I could get at least $25 an hour, I’d be OK. If it’s just for six months, I’d take it.”

He did have one offer from an aerospace company to do the same work he was doing, structure mechanic, but it was 50 miles from home and it was $15 an hour.

Magee knew he had it good all those years, but he didn’t know how good until he met the cold reality of the new economy, in which thousands of people can barely afford a one-bedroom apartment, let alone a five-acre compound.

Magee rejected the $15, holding out for better.

“I’d eat half that up on gas,” he said.

It could be worse, actually. Magee’s deal through Local 148, United Aerospace Workers, gives him a good pension and decent medical, even if the income is a fraction of what he was earning. But after losing money in a real estate investment, he says he’s going to have to start dipping into his 401(k) unless he finds another job real soon.

He’s not alone in this. A good percentage of the Boeing employees were old enough and in good enough shape financially to scoot off into retirement, but not all of them.

“We had some people walking around here like zombies,” George Burden, secretary treasurer, told me when I visited Local 148 in Lakewood.

At its height, the Local had 50,000 employees, said Burden, who began building jets in 1978. It’s now got fewer than 600, with another layoff scheduled this week.

“I think we’re farming things out all over the world, trying to do everything cheaper and not necessarily better,” said Burden.

“Companies don’t want to do anything — no pensions, no benefits. Nothing, except for the top half percent,” Burden added, noting the compensation for Boeing’s CEO, who brought home $39 million in 2013. It’s hard to maintain a middle class, Burden said, when the wage gap widens even as the cost of a good college education soars.

Magee said he’ll move anywhere, including another state, if he finds a good job. As he frets about the future, he realizes he misses more than the paycheck.

“You become good at what you do and you take pride in it,” Magee told me, explaining the small details of how he pieced together the various components of DC-10 and Super 80 jets in the early days, before the giant plant near Long Beach Airport switched exclusively to the C-17 Globemaster III.

The C-17, a hulking cargo liner known for its ability to land and take off on short runways, has been used on humanitarian missions to disaster zones, as well as to deliver military troops and heavy equipment including tanks.

Magee used to love it when people asked what he did for a living.

“I’d say I work for Boeing aircraft, man. I work on the C-17, and to me, that’s powerful. When there’s huge devastation with tsunamis and all that, we bring in the tanks and the troops and all the huge payloads and we don’t even need a runway. We can take off on dirt, get in and out of there and we’re gone, baby.”

At his home last week, Magee couldn’t stop seeing what was supposed to be.

“This was going to be the driveway turnaround,” he said while his wife played with their 9-month-old daughter. “The pool was going to go right there.”

He grew up in Long Beach but made the move a few years ago because it’s quiet out there, and you get a lot more for your money. Yeah, maybe he took on a little too much, and the commute to Long Beach has been insane, but it’s not in his nature to apologize for big dreams.

He was so close to having it made.

“I can’t beat myself up about it. I’ve already done enough of that,” he said. “I can’t just sit around going ‘woe is me.’ Man, I am not going to do that. No way. I’ll create something. I have to do something to provide for my family.”

And I’ll be watching as Magee and his former colleagues struggle to maintain their perch in the shrinking middle class.

To be continued.


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