Strike echoes in white-collar world

Engineers picketing in Seattle point to unions' ability to recruit Information Age workers.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

They're engineers first. They wear white collars, not blue. And walking picket lines in winter - with no strike pay - was never a part of their nature.

Yet here they stand, burning wooden pallets for warmth - a chummy congregation in Eddie Bauer flannels and Rockport casuals, holding their own against one of the world's most powerful companies.

In two weeks, this band of Boeing engineers and technicians has metamorphosed from little more than a voluntary employees club to perhaps the most potent symbol of white-collar solidarity in America today.

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Indeed, to some, the struggle between this once-wimpy union and the aerospace giant represents a kind of Rubicon that organized labor is desperate to cross. As job security for even the highest-paid workers is imperiled by corporations' desire to cut costs, the strike has become a crucial indicator of whether or not unions can enfold the type of workers who will drive the economic growth of the next century.

If the strike "is successful, it would be an enormous boost to other white-collar workers," says David Olson, a political scientist at the University of Washington. "It will be a signal that the global-manufacturing companies of the new millennium have a workforce that will organize from the bottom to the top to secure its interests."

Here on the shores of Puget Sound, talks between Boeing and the engineers' union are scheduled to resume today. Nationwide, the strength of the strike is representative of organized labor's attempts to target more white-collar workers as blue-collar jobs move overseas and workers seek jobs in the service and professional sectors.

In 1999, "a significant share of [the 266,000 new union members nationwide] were professional and technical employees," says Helena Jorgensen, an AFL-CIO economist in Washington.

Even unions with powerful blue-collar traditions are today organizing professionals. For example, the United Auto Workers (UAW) has 100,000 members who are white-collar, one-eighth of the union's ranks.

"In our region, 95 percent of those we're organizing are white-collar," says Phil Wheeler, director of a UAW Region that includes New England, New York, and Puerto Rico. "Over 50 percent of membership in [the region] is white-collar."

In recent years, the UAW has organized graphic artists, freelance writers, and graduate students in the University of California system. In addition, the Communication Workers of America has organized software designers at Microsoft, and the Service Employees International Union has signed up disgruntled physicians in California.

"White-collar organizing is at an all-time high," says Julie Kushner, who also works for the UAW in New York. "People are seeking us out, really, as fast as we can organize."

The group of Boeing strikers, known as the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), organized 56 years ago under a different name, but it wasn't until last year that it latched onto the AFL-CIO.

Its one previous strike, back in 1993, was so ill-conceived that it lasted only one day and nearly doomed the organization. But much has changed since Boeing purchased longtime competitor McDonnell Douglas in 1998.

Strikers say their employer bought more than manufacturing facilities when it took over McDonnell Douglas; they say it also seemed to acquire its competitor's business approach. McDonnell Douglas's strategy boosted stock price but diminished the company's role as a major player in aerospace. This, the strikers add, ripened it for a takeover and led to unemployment for thousands of workers.

In 1999, strikers point out, Boeing revised its business plan, declaring that its No. 1 goal would be raising the value of stock.

When SPEEA members walked off the job this time, on Feb. 8, they had 14 million members of the AFL-CIO backing them.

The Teamsters who drive UPS trucks refused to cross picket lines to deliver Boeing's parts. The unionized engineers of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad simply left some jetliner fuselages sitting on a siding somewhere south of Seattle.

Perhaps most significant, members of the International Association of Machinists, who build what the engineers design, did only what they were required to do by their contracts - a bare minimum that slowed production already hindered by the walkout.

Boeing says the strike, with support from other unions, has blocked the scheduled delivery of airplanes to customers.

"When we realized that we had immediately stopped the delivery of airplanes, I think that really strengthened people's resolve," says Stan Sorscher, a physicist and member of one of SPEEA's bargaining units.

Because SPEEA is a voluntary union, only 64 percent of Boeing engineers and technicians choose to pay dues. Nonetheless, of the 20,900 employees covered by the bargaining agreement, some 19,500 chose to strike, which means about 5,000 of those who walked out were not dues-paying members.

"After 37 years being here, I never thought this would happen. But all the senior engineers of the company are out here," says one senior engineer who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I joined SPEEA one month before the strike. I finally got mad enough."

Billy Roeseler, a picket captain and engineer with 28 years at Boeing, stood across the street from buildings where work on the B-1 Bomber and the revolutionary new Joint Strike Fighter has all but stopped. "I've always been on management's side," he says. "My father was a manager back in the Rust Belt where I grew up, and there were some ugly strikes. I didn't really want to be a part of organized labor. But there comes a time when you have to stand up for yourself."

So far neither Boeing nor its striking employees have shown signs of bending. At this point it may come down to which comes first: the incessant rains of March or threats from customers demanding their planes.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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