White-collar Boeing strike sends message

It indicates that unions - and professionals - have leverage now that workers are scarce.

For 40 days and 40 nights, the engineers who design Boeing's high-tech wares did what few believed they could or would: They stayed away from their jobs and stuck together in what became the largest white-collar labor strike in US history.

Their solidarity appears to have paid off, winning significant concessions from Boeing in what's being seen as a favorable settlement.

The implications could reverberate far beyond the soft cedar woods of the Pacific Northwest. The settlement is further evidence that workers are parlaying their increasing value in a tight-labor economy into more leverage through unions. And that may be especially true for white-collar workers - a group that has traditionally not been an activist part of the American workforce.

"This represents an enormous victory," said David Olson, a labor historian at the University of Washington here. "Among these engineers,... there was a level of militancy that is rarely seen among white-collar workers."

He says the engineers' success will be noticed by other professionals whose wages have not kept pace with the cost of living, "and they will now see that collective action by white-collar workers can have a real payoff."

Though this latest contract does not give the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) everything it wanted, Boeing appears to have blinked first.

With somewhere between 85 to 90 percent of the company's engineering staff away from their posts, production at the aerospace behemoth had all but stopped. Work on the potentially lucrative Joint Strike Fighter fell behind schedule, as did modifications to the B-1 bomber. In March, the company delivered only three commercial jets, and airline customers grew unhappy, as did Wall Street.

Before the strike began on Feb. 9, Boeing stock was at 44.63. By last Thursday, it had fallen to 35.63. News of the tentative settlement boosted the stock to 38.00 on Friday.

SPEEA's ability to go hammer-and-tong against the likes of Boeing is all the more amazing given the union's flaccid history. For years, many engineers had been wary of the union label; some ignored SPEEA because membership was voluntary.

Last fall, however, as discontent with Boeing grew, hundreds began joining SPEEA. In October, the union affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which brought the support of other workers, along with organized labor's money.

Two weeks ago, Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, delivered a check for $50,000 and promised strikers $25,000 more each week. "Today, tomorrow, and for as long as it takes, we will stand with you," Mr. Trumka promised. "You are the future of the labor movement."

With blue-collar jobs moving overseas, organized labor has founded its future on workers in the professions. The AFL-CIO saw the strike by SPEEA as a place to make a stand.

Last week, Trumka and John Sweeney, AFL-CIO president, talked to Boeing. "We said, 'We want you to understand that we aren't giving SPEEA lip service here - we're in it for the long haul,' " Trumka says.

Soon after, Boeing dropped its proposals to cut employee health benefits and life-insurance programs, granted across-the-board raises, and included a $2,500 bonus in its offer. There's even a provision to permit SPEEA to vote on whether to make union membership mandatory.

Some 20,000 Boeing engineers and technicians were scheduled to vote last night on whether to accept the contract. It was widely expected to pass.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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