The Boeing Strike: A Report from the Trenches

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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.

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.

Background

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 orientation session.

I didn't join. Washington is a "Right to Work" state; union membership wasn't required.

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.

SPEEA logoIt 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 the street.

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.

Genesis of a Strike

As IAM, So Goes SPEEA?

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 time.

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 scorned it.

... Sauce for the Goose

SPEEA strike logoThen 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 bonuses.

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.

The Winter of SPEEA's Discontent

"No One Really Thought a Strike Would Happen ..."

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.

Boeing LogoNot 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 funded.

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 one.

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 closer.

... Will They or Won't They?

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 Wihcita logoSPEEA 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.

The Strike Begins

The Fruits of Miscalculation?

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 them."

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 droves.

Veep Al Gore visits the SPEEA picket lineThe 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.

On the Line

OJT?

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 this."

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.

A SPEEA member and his family on the picket lineThe 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.

... Learning by Doing ...

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 supplies.

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 gloves.

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.

... The Upside of Picketing

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.

More picketersWhile 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.

Effectiveness

What's Getting Done ...

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."

SPEEA desktop wallpaper imageLittle 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.

... And What Isn't ...

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?

... You Never Want to See Them Make Sausages or Airplanes ...

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.

SPEEA Strike BannerThrough 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.

... Sympathetic Brethren

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 SPEEA web page.

The Company Reaction

Or, How to Win Friends and Influence Employees ...

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 scapegoat.

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 their respect.

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 terrible resolve."

The Prognosis

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.

SPEEA strike logoI 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.]