GUEST COMMENTARY. The ongoing strike by the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) against Boeing took a lot of people by surprise, not least of which apparently was Boeing. Since February 9, the strike's first day, the white-collar union has seen more and more of its bargaining unit walk off the job — even though many workers are not SPEEA members — as well as growing support from blue-collar unions like the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and the Teamsters. Some presidential candidates have even visited the picket lines. What's going on here? Boeing employee and striking engineer Ron Wanttaja gives his view in this guest editorial originally written February 23, 2000.
February 23, 2000
In early February, Boeing's second-largest union, the
Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), went out on
strike. I'm in kind of a unique position; I'm one of the striking engineers and
also an aviation journalist.
It is said that this is the largest white-collar strike in history. Couple
that with the fact that engineers are generally politically conservative, and
you have a quite unusual situation. Call it "March of the Dilberts," or "Revenge
of the Nerds" if you will. The fact remains that a sizeable group whose support
for labor causes has traditionally been lukewarm at best is walking the picket
lines in the best tradition of American labor.
As a striking engineer, I can't claim to be neutral. Consider this, if you
will, a message from a war correspondent. I'm in the front lines, I know which
side I want to win, but I'll try to stay neutral enough to accurately report
what I've experienced.
Almost 20 years ago, I left the U.S. Air Force and went to work for Boeing in
Seattle. The recruiter for what was then called the "Seattle Professional
Engineering Employees Association" had a table set up right outside the initial
I didn't join. Washington is a "Right to Work" state; union membership wasn't
In any case, I soon found out that SPEEA was considered a wimp, as unions go.
They'd never called a strike; they'd never even rejected a company contract
offer. Only 40% of the engineers ever bothered to join.
It was quite a bit different from the union representing
the blue-collar workers at Boeing. The International Association of Machinists
and Aerospace Workers (IAM) is a classic example of a belligerent union. They
negotiated hard, and didn't hesitate to call a strike if they felt the company
wasn't treating them right at contract time. The IAM headquarters building at
Everett illustrates this attitude: It's right across the street from the big
Boeing plant there, and it has a life-size bronze sculpture out front: a man, a
woman, and a young child, all shaking picket signs at the Boeing plant across
SPEEA was a wuss by comparison. In fact, many regarded it as Boeing's "tame"
union ... tolerated, even nurtured to some extent, by the company. The theory
went that the company felt that the presence of SPEEA prevented an organization
attempt by a stronger organization, like the AFL-CIO.
So I ignored SPEEA, like about 60% of my fellow employees. After 10 years or
so with the company, I came to moderate my feelings toward it a bit. SPEEA did
represent all the engineers, whether members or not. They did do my contract
negotiations for me. They did provide protection and representation if the
company threatened to take action against me.
I dislike taking freebies. So I joined the union ... not because I supported
organized labor, but because I wanted to pay for the services I received.
And so things continued. Every three years, the IAM and SPEEA's contracts
would expire and come up for negotiation. IAM's contact expires in October, and
SPEEA's in December, so we'd watch the Boeing-IAM negotiations curiously.
Contract after contract, the IAM-represented workers would receive bonuses.
We engineers seldom did, but consoled ourselves that our contract contained more
money for raises. The IAM would have cost-of-living increases, but the money in
the SPEEA contact was entirely for merit raises: Management would decide who
would get raises every year. As you would expect, those who toiled in obscurity,
and/or had a tendency to tick off management usually ended up shafted at raise
Occasionally, Boeing and the IAM would reach an impasse and a strike would
happen. IAM and SPEEA have agreements which didn't allow them to refuse to cross
the other sides' picket lines, so even when the IAM struck, it didn't affect my
kind of work very much (study and analysis, not manufacturing).
It looked like the same thing was going to happen last fall. Boeing and the
IAM were snarling at each other. The IAM leadership was warning members to
prepare for another long strike. Boeing made its offer and the union leadership
Then a curious thing happened. Boeing CEO Phil
Condit stood up. He said that Boeing valued its employees, and that the company
didn't want to endanger its recovery from the recent hard times. Condit gave the
IAM everything they asked for, including 10% yearly bonuses.
Everyone hailed Phil, the great peacemaker. The engineers relaxed. Generally,
we received a watered-down package similar to the IAM. We wouldn't get yearly
bonuses but maybe, just maybe, there's be a little lump sum at the top. The
non-represented employees (secretaries, accountants, etc.) had just been offered
a profit-sharing plan, and we figured we'd get the same plan in lieu of the
Boeing made its offer in December ... and we were stunned.
No bonuses. No profit sharing. And would now be required to PAY for our
medical coverage. The merit raises offered were about the same as the last
contact, negotiated in the midst of Boeing's biggest financial crisis in
decades. Now, of course, the company was reporting record profits.
SPEEA took the proposed contract to the membership for a vote and it was
rejected by 99% of the members. At the same time, 80% authorized a strike.
Some minor saber rattling at that point, at both sides. Negotiations were
pushed back to past the start of the year. The old contract expired.
Negotiations weren't going anywhere.
As this was going on, I noticed a distinct change of attitudes among my
co-workers. Normally, there's a feeling of "Que Sera Sera" as far as what our
contract looks like.
Not this time. People were ticked off. Attitudes toward Phil
Condit and company President Harry Stonecipher really started to harden. Condit
had had a reasonably good reputation before, though Stonecipher (former head of
McDonnell-Douglas, who was given the Boeing slot upon the merger) had been
followed by a bunch of bad stories from MacDac.
Younger, less financially-stable engineers were especially worried. They
couldn't afford a strike, but neither were they willing to start shelling out
hundreds of dollars a month for medical insurance that had previously been fully
With all the disquiet and argument among the engineering ranks, one thing was
rapidly agreed on: The company's offer was a DELIBERATE slight against the
engineers. We were being told that our contributions weren't appreciated; that
our past loyalty and dedication didn't count.
This opinion was confirmed by the company's Human Resources Manager, Jim
Dagnon. The local paper quoted him as saying that engineers were prima-donnas
who "thought the world revolved around them."
No one really thought a strike would happen, though. It never had, and people
were used to seeing SPEEA cave in.
Toward mid-January, SPEEA set a strike deadline. As it neared, picketing
schedules and strike handbooks were distributed.
Then Boeing made another offer, right before the strike deadline. It was
changed enough so that SPEEA took it to the membership.
The requirement to pay for medical coverage was dropped. But so was the
company-paid life insurance ... my coverage dropped from about $200,000 to
$32,000. The contract contained several other takeaways. One of my fellow
engineers calculated that the first offer the one where we would be required
to pay for our medical insurance actually cost us less money than the new
SPEEA warned its members to prepare for an immediate strike if the new
contract was voted down. The company took a hard-line stance: They assured
people that an engineer's strike wouldn't affect production.
One engineer was unfortunately quoted by the local paper: "I'll go out for a
whole week if I have to." The last two IAM strikes had lasted more than two
months. The engineer's statement was seized on, to prove that the engineers
weren't committed. I had two managers parrot it back to me as the deadlines grew
No one believed SPEEA would strike. Few, including myself, felt that such a
strike would have much of a short-term impact on the company.
SPEEA had no strike fund. No experience running a strike.
IAM members knew a strike was possible every three years, and usually banked a
nest egg to prepare. Not the engineers.
But belligerency was building. On the day the votes on the new contract were
being counted, some engineers at the Renton plant were standing up every half
hour, chanting, "Strike, strike, strike." Police had to be called to one meeting
between the SPEEA negotiators and angry union members who felt they'd sold them
out by even taking the vote on the new contract to the membership.
Things were coming to a head ... then SPEEA announced that a federal mediator
had offered to work with Boeing and the union. No matter which way the vote
went, a strike would be delayed to allow two days of mediation. Altercations
broke out at both Everett and Renton, when engineers learned of the delay.
The vote count came in: Contact rejected. The vote was close: 51% against it
among engineers, and 64% against it among the technicians also represented by
SPEEA. Boeing pointed out that, with only 40% membership, only about 25% of the
total represented employees had actually voted against the contract.
Boeing announced it would attend the mediation, but that it had no intention
of altering its offer in any way.
The mediation took place, with no results. On the evening of Tuesday,
February 8th, SPEEA called a strike, starting at 9:00 a.m. the next morning.
Then came the morning of February 9th. No one booted up their computers; we
all stood around talking of inconsequentials. Just before nine, one of the
engineers with our subcontractors came over to me with a question. I just
grinned and said, "I don't think I could explain that in five minutes."
At nine o'clock, we started walking. Out the door, in singles and in groups.
The roads and sidewalks inside the plant were jammed. Outside the gate, the
streams of pedestrians scooped up waiting picket signs
As I mentioned earlier, Boeing had announced that only 25% of the total
engineers had turned down the contract. Well, one factor in their math was
wrong: They'd calculated that using outdated figures for union membership. By
the time the second contract vote had come around, 60% of the engineering work
force were union members, an increase of about 50%.
The SPEEA membership forms have a line where the new member can list who
their sponsor was. Many of the new members listed "Jim Dagnon," the Boeing HR
director who made the comment about "engineers think the world revolves around
By Boeing's own admission, 75% of the engineers walked off their jobs that
Wednesday. By SPEEA's estimate, 90% left the plant. Note that even 75% is higher
than the percentage of SPEEA membership ... non-members also walked out in
The critical day was Valentine's Day, the first Monday
after the start of the strike. Mindful of the one unfortunate comment by the one
engineer, a lot of folks expected people would return to work that day. The
afternoon before, on my picket shift, I heard a rumor that Boeing had already
prepared a press release announcing that 5,000 striking engineers had crossed
the picket line.
It didn't happen. In fact, MORE engineers decided to walk out.
It's been interesting to observe how the picket situation changed since the
first day. As one union rep said on the news, "We're still learning how to do
The union assigned engineers to three-hour picket shifts based on the last
four digits of their social security number. How often one has a picket shift
depends upon how many engineers work at a given facility (e.g., the number of
people available) and how many gates must be covered.
We aren't required to picket. We sign up when we get there, but there's no
tracking by the union to discover who doesn't show up.
Me and thousands of my co-workers are fortunate to work at the Boeing Kent
Space Center only two gates, and a bunch of people to work them. Some plants
have more gates but fewer engineers. There, the picketers work three or four
days in a row. But at Kent, we have one shift only every two-and-a-half days.
The luck of the draw brought me the two
o'clock-to-five o' clock shift. I alternate the a.m. and p.m. shifts, staggered
by 60 hours of separation.
Everyone knows how cruddy the weather usually is in Seattle this time of
year, and there isn't much shelter out on the line. My assigned gate has a bus
stop with a small shelter, closed on three sides with a bench. The picket
captains (union people in charge of each picket shift) took over the shelter as
a temporary office, but the bus company quickly complained. Within a couple of
days, a shack of scrap wood sprang up. It's open on one side, and is propped up
using one wall of the bus shelter, but it keeps the rain off the brochures and
Still, one doesn't spend much time under cover. My picketing clothing has
been gradually accumulating over the last week. On my first night shift (2:00
a.m. to 5:00 a.m.), I wore my usual raincoat and hat, with a scarf and sweater
for warmth and my comfortable blue jeans. It got down to 35 degrees that night,
and what I wore wasn't enough. By my second shift, I'd been to REI (a local
outdoors store) to pick up a set of long johns and a poncho. My third picket
shift saw a serious downpour, so now I've got rain pants and Gore-Tex ski
A Seattle strike standby is the "burn barrel"...a 55-gallon drum with the top
cut off and scrap wood burning to provide heat (the IAM family sculpture at
Everett even includes one). On my first picket shift, 2:00 a.m. on the first
night of the strike, I was greeted by the barrel. By my second shift, the local
office of the Environmental Protection Agency had clamped down, claiming the
barrels violated local emissions standards. SPEEA showed up with radiant heaters
on propane tanks.
The next time, the burn barrel was back in use ... but modified. A second
barrel had been welded to the top, with a large hinged door in the side and a
chimney out the top. The local EPA approved the mods, so we're now operating
with our high-tech burn barrels.
Our signs are adapted to Seattle weather, as well. The handle is a long lath,
fairly comfortable to hold and smooth enough to not carry splinters (though I've
seen one striker who's substituted an ax handle). Two cardboard signs are
stapled back-to-back, the handle run up between them, a plastic bag pulled over
the top, and the whole mess stapled to the handle.
Being engineers of course, some of us can't leave well enough alone. Signs
have started to sprout modifications. I've seen several sporting "Dilbert"
dolls, and night picketers have been strapping on lightsticks and strobes.
It may seem odd to describe it this way, but I find picket duty rather
relaxing. There's little demand on your body, and almost nothing on your brain.
Walk back and forth as the mood strikes. Wave the sign when a horn honks. Stand
with a fellow striker and chat about inconsequentials. When the wind is strong,
play aerodynamic games with the picket sign. If I get my hand relaxed properly,
I can induce a rather nice flutter when the wind is right. I can work on story
plots, I can contemplate article ideas, I can lay out projects, or I can just
watch the clouds float by or ripples fanning out across a puddle. It's peaceful.
While I didn't know most of the folks on my shift, after a
few picketing sessions, they have become pretty familiar. There's the cheery guy
with the beard, holding court on the south side of the gate in his bright yellow
motorcycle rain suit. There's the dark-haired woman, who brings a plastic chair
with her and plops it by the burn barrel for the duration of the night shifts.
There's the tall, slim, dark-haired man with high-tech headphones and the drawn
face, and his worries about how quickly a settlement might come.
What has been amazing is the amount of support we've received. Trucks blow
their horns as they come by (so much so, we're told that management at Renton
complained about the noise. Good!) Cars honk, kids wave. The local newspaper
delivery trucks stop and drop off free papers. Total strangers stop and drop off
wood for our burn barrels.
What has been especially touching is the support from the members of the IAM.
As I mentioned earlier, their contract requires them to cross our picket line.
But they seldom do so without a wave and a honk. They often stop and leave
doughnuts, pizzas or cups of coffee. They doubted our resolve at the beginning,
but now seem to be proud of us.
We have spies everywhere.
The secretaries call us up with reports from inside. Our IAM brethren give us
the scoop. Some of our fellow engineers had been raised to the "Technical
Fellow" level and can't participate in our strike, but they tell us what's
happening inside. Even the lower-level managers come out to talk to us.
The most common term used to describe the inside: "Ghost Town."
Little manufacturing is done at the Kent Space Center; most
of the work is analysis in support of ongoing or upcoming programs. AWACS
Systems Engineering has seen almost a total walkout. Work on the Joint Strike
Fighter is almost at a standstill, as is Boeing's work on the F-22. The study
I'm involved in, with a final report due in a bit over a month, saw only one
engineer remain. The test labs are deserted.
But of course, walkouts in these areas hurt the company in the long run, and
the upper management is concerned only with short-term profits. It was generally
believed that a SPEEA walkout wouldn't affect aircraft production.
But now, it seems incredible that management DIDN'T foresee the effect an
engineer's strike would have. I think it just illustrates how out-of-touch the
executive level of this company is, when it comes down to understanding the
process of designing, building, and supporting airliners.
This story ... possibly apocryphal ... illustrates this. The first day of the
strike, President Harry Stonecipher got a phone call from an irate airline
president, complaining that they couldn't get anyone to discuss a technical
problem. Stonecipher, in high dudgeon, called the support section to demand to
know what was happening. HE couldn't get hold of anyone either ... then it
probably dawned on him that the strike would cause a bit more problem that he
thought it would.
Harry also got an irate call from Qantas. Seems a couple dozen Boeing
engineers had been helping on an AOG (aircraft on ground) situation. But at 9:00
a.m. Seattle time, they'd downed tools and trooped back to the airport terminal
to catch flights home. Qantas wasn't mad about the strike per se ...
after all, Australia has a strong labor movement. But they were angry that
Boeing hadn't done a darn thing to PREPARE for the AOG team's departure.
Here's a statistic: Boeing gets 130,000 faxes and telexes a year involving
technical support for airplanes in the field. How many of those problems are
being solved, with 90% of the engineers out on strike?
Boeing relies on about 500 DERs (Designated Engineering Representatives,
Boeing employees who are given FAA-level approval authority) for the inspection
of aircraft. 480 of them went out on strike and most of those remaining were
managers. The day of the strike, Boeing announced that the FAA would provide
additional inspectors. They did: three.
Through the construction process, mistakes are made that
require minor alterations. These alterations are developed and analyzed by SPEEA
engineers. This process is NOT happening ... hence, while airplanes are moving
along the production line, they amass huge red flags in their paperwork.
Boeing is supposed to deliver 480 planes this year. In the two weeks since
the strike started, they've delivered about four, all characterized as "low
hanging fruit" that had little work necessary for completion. Word from the IAM
says Boeing is just rolling planes off the end of the assembly line and pushing
them to parking slots in odd corners of the airport ... they can't be delivered
until all the red flags are taken care of by engineers. Rumor has it that Boeing
is going to start getting ferry permits for these planes to fly them to a desert
storage area just to clear some ramp space.
A more insidious problem may cause the production line to grind to a halt in
the next few weeks: All these airplanes are assembled by precision tools that
must be recalibrated on a regular basis. And who does that calibration? You
guessed it, SPEEA technicians. This even extends to the ovens used for composite
parts and the refrigerators prepregs are stored in, and to the overhead cranes
that support components during the assembly process.
I mentioned earlier that Boeing seemed to tolerate SPEEA because they felt a
"tame" union would prevent someone like the AFL-CIO from moving in an organizing
the engineers. Last fall, though, SPEEA got affiliated with the AFL-CIO. This,
in itself, may have triggered Boeing's hardnose position.
This has some other significance that one should understand. Since we're an
AFL-CIO affiliate now, other affiliates are under pressure to NOT cross our
picket line. The IAM is contractually obligated to cross the line of any other
Boeing union, but that doesn't hold for unions that don't have similar contracts
with the company.
Especially the Teamsters.
The Teamsters are refusing to cross our picket line. Long-haul trucks won't
make deliveries, United Parcel Service and FedEx trucks won't cross (although
they're getting around that by using managers to drive Boeing-bound trucks),
garbage trucks won't make pickups, and railroad engineers won't cross the line.
737 fuselages from Wichita sit on a siding in Renton, because the trainmen won't
enter the plant. The fuselages sit there until the railroad sends a manager to
drive them onto the plant.
As you might expect, this also has a major effect ... Boeing's having trouble
getting parts. They're setting up drop-off points by leasing warehouses in
industrial areas. Commercial trucks are instructed to make their deliveries
there, where the loads are transferred to Boeing trucks. However, when this
happens, SPEEA dispatches a "flying squad" of picketers to the site. Boeing got
thrown out of one warehouse complex the SPEEA folks can only set up on public
property (the sidewalk) and trucks were refusing to cross the line to deliver to
any of the OTHER companies in the complex.
Also other unions have refused to cross. A mainframe IBM computer crashed
recently, the IBM repairman refused to cross the line. These and similar stories are on the
The company reaction to the strike has been an exercise in
spin control. Before it happened, of course, they assured everyone that
operations wouldn't be affected.
When it hit, then they admitted, oh, maybe a few delays. Then they were going
to start delivering aircraft again. Oh, maybe a few days. Oh, we're right on the
edge. Look, we got one out, so obviously the strike has no effect!
I've already related the "Engineers think they're the center of the universe"
comment. A few days after the strike began, CEO Phil Condit gave a press
conference and claimed that engineers were a valuable resource and the company
wanted them back. Oh, and by the way, the offer you last rejected is going to be
the best that we'll give you.
Harry Stonecipher also had a press conference where he complained that he was
being "demonized" by SPEEA members and people were trying to make him the
One thing that really, REALLY torques me off about company press releases:
They always talk about the last offer, and how it's waiting for returning
engineers. In reality, they have officially withdrawn that offer. There is no
company offer on the table right now.
The company takes out multipage ads in the local newspaper, claiming that
their offer is the best in the industry. But I still end up losing money on it;
there are still a number of take-aways, and the raise money they offer is just
about the same as was included in the last contract.
The withdrawn offers were also sent to strikers' homes, signed, again, by the
unfortunate Jim Dagnon. If anything, the letters merely threw fuel in the
flames, claiming that most engineers "have not had the opportunity to examine
the specifics of what was offered." Telling people with Masters' and Ph.D.
degrees that they are just puppets of the union leadership is not the way to win
All in all, the company badly underestimated both the strikers themselves and
the effect a walkout would have on the company. The fact that the engineers have
discovered that they have this sort of power over the company is likely to have
an effect for years to come. To quote Japan's Admiral Yamamoto after Pearl
Harbor: "I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant, and filled him with a
SPEEA says Boeing has hired a law firm specializing in strikebreaking. They
say this firm will infiltrate fake strikers into the ranks to spread stories
about how the strike is failing. They'll supposedly say that it's dangerous to
be out there and that a gang has been targeting strikers late at night. They'll
supposedly try to incite rock throwing or other illegal activity that'll help
Boeing get an injunction against the strike.
I don't know if it's true or not. That's one of
the problems with the current situation; our information sources are pretty much
one-sided. It's obviously in SPEEA's best interests to have us believe that any
information showing the strike as ineffective is untrue.
How long will the strike last? I haven't the foggiest. People are hurting,
there's no question. But with few exceptions, the people I meet out on the line
are determined to see this through.
There's a high-tech aspect to this action: The use of the Internet to keep
people in touch. Most of the information I've related here has come from email
distributions set up by my co-workers. There's a lot of encouragement there, a
lot of information on how to get help and even parties planned to keep folks
entertained and their morale up.
Sadly, too, the "S-word" has been coming up, with people posting the names of
people who didn't strike. There have been a few vague threats made, but these
are always pounced on by others. Still, I can see there's going to be some hard
feelings when the strike is over.
Tomorrow (February 24th), the federal mediator is planning to come to Seattle
for meetings with the union and company negotiators. No optimism has been shown
about these meetings, though.
One of our IAM friends told us that Boeing doesn't start negotiating
seriously until the striking employees receive a paycheck with "$0.00" on it.
That won't be until the end of February; coincidentally, that's when people's
prepaid health coverage runs out and they'll have to shell out $500 or so for
another month's coverage. Whether the union will stand firm or start caving in
and going back to work should be apparent around the beginning of March.
So that's where it stands. Whether you make $10 an hour or $40, it's tough to
be without a paycheck. But so far, the engineers have been resolute.
Engineers are used to prediction and calculation. Like most of my fellow
strikers, I've looked at the family finances and made an estimate as to just how
long I can stay out. In my case, I know exactly how long I can last: One day
longer than management can!
[Editor's note: Since Mr. Wanttaja wrote this piece, Boeing has
apparently submitted a third offer to SPEEA. At AVweb's deadline, there had
been no further developments.]