Some 1,700 line workers began a strike just past midnight, surrounding the plant with hundreds of picket signs a week after workers overwhelmingly rejected Boeing's "best and final" deal for a new 46-month contract.
"We strongly believe the company's offer was unethical and disrespectful, and while we didn't prefer a strike, the members are strongly behind it if that's what it takes," said Stan Klemchuk, president of United Aerospace Workers Local 148, which represents the striking workers. "A strike is a lose-lose for everybody, but the pension and medical issue is simply too important to let go."
Boeing management said the plant's roughly 3,000 other workers reported as usual, but the sprawling production floor next to Long Beach Airport will remain dark until the dispute is resolved.
"We will be deploying our contingency plans that we have in place in the event of a strike," said Boeing spokeswoman Cindy Anderson. "Company facilities will remain open and all employees (except strikers) will be expected to report to work unless otherwise notified."
Boeing said C-17 suppliers in 43 states, including California, are not yet being affected, though a prolonged strike - believed to be more than 90 days - could force some to limit or halt production.
Still, suppliers have "a long lead time," Anderson said, though a specific time frame was not given.
Workers remain hopeful that negotiations will be renewed in coming days, but say they're prepared to wait it out. Striking workers are being paid reduced wages and benefits by the union.
"We're hoping this doesn't drag on too long, and we'd like to go back to building the planes as soon as possible, but we won't go back to the table as long as the company isn't willing to make some movement," Klemchuk said.
Many workers, whose average age is 55, say they're fighting to preserve existing retirement benefits.
"This is about our future," said Reni Nevels, a 25-year veteran. "We've put years of blood, sweat and tears into this plant, many of us going back to the McDonnell Douglas days, and we feel we've sacrificed through our careers for the promise of a decent retirement."
Boeing purchased the plant from McDonnell Douglas in the 1990s.
Workers here have built more than 200 C-17s for the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and a NATO-led air force involved in humanitarian missions. The Indian Air Force is also currently pursuing the purchase of 10 C-17s for military and relief efforts, and several other countries, including Saudi Arabia, are rumored to be interested in purchases.
Boeing has called upon a federal labor mediator to help arbitrate between the parties, though no formal talks have yet been scheduled.
The C-17 plant has not experienced a strike since its inception in the early 1990s, though other Boeing plants have been targeted frequently in recent years.
An eight-week walkout by 27,000 workers outside California in 2008 caused delays in research and production of Boeing's massive Dreamliner 787 jet and an updated version of its popular 747, but the company still managed a $1.31 billion profit in 2009.
The strike comes at a time of uncertainty surrounding the C-17 s future. The Pentagon has stopped new orders, and President Barack Obama specifically targeted the plane for defense budget cuts in his proposed 2010 budget.
Boeing plans to end production in mid-2013, though foreign orders could extend the line well past mid-decade.
The $250 million C-17 has become a workhorse for some of the globe's largest militaries, hauling vehicles, troops and supplies to battle zones across the world.
And it has also become a staple vehicle in relief efforts, ferrying tons of medical supplies, food, water and other relief items to disaster zones including Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and most recently, quake-stricken Haiti.