Boeing engineers' strike in 2000 casts shadow over current talks

Jan 9, 2013

Boeing engineers and the company are supposed to meet with a federal mediator today – but union leaders say the two sides are still far apart. Looming over the negotiations is a memory that's 13 years old, but still fresh for many.

In early 2000, Boeing engineers and technicians did what nobody expected them to do – walk off the job and stay off.

At 9:00 a.m. on Feb. 9, 2000, thousands of Boeing engineers and technicians stood up, grabbed their jackets and streamed out the doors - in Renton, Everett, Kent, Tukwila, Auburn - all over the Puget Sound region. 

"Right in the middle of one of the meetings with the FAA at 9:00 in the morning, we said excuse us, we have to go now," said Boeing technician Judy Mogan. "We walked out through the building and then out the gates in unison. It was just incredible."

One of the largest white-collar strikes in history

Nobody really imagined these folks would take collective action like that - much less more than 17,000 of them, dwarfing even the infamous air traffic controllers strike under President Reagan.

It was unlikely for a lot of reasons. The Boeing engineers were self-proclaimed nerds – more analytical than radical. Many of them didn't see the need for a union. Membership in the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace - or SPEEA - was voluntary. Not even half were paying dues when negotiations began.

The only other strike in the union's history was a halfhearted one-day affair in 1993. So what moved these white-collar professionals to take a page from blue-collar unions and strike for 40 days in 2000?

Credit SPEEA

'Red-haired stepchildren of Boeing'

There were lots of things that rankled the engineers. Number 1: the machinists’ contract. They had gotten a bonus, and they didn’t have to pay for their medical plan. With the threat of a machinists' strike looming, CEO Phil Condit appeared at the table in the 11th hour to broker a deal, and then afterward said it was the "best wages and retirement plan in the industry." The machinists trumpeted that it was the best contract in aerospace.

Then came Boeing’s offer to SPEEA – it landed with a thud. No bonus. A less generous medical plan. Disappointing wage increases. SPEEA’s current president Tom McCarty was on the negotiating team back then. He says engineers and technicians didn’t feel valued.

"They felt like the red-haired stepchildren of Boeing. They got a crummy deal," McCarty said. "You know, people personalize that."

'SPEEA wants the same outstanding contract'

But was the SPEEA offer really such a bad deal?

A lot comes down to perception. Geoff Stamper was Boeing’s chief negotiator in the SPEEA talks. He says the machinists, for example, didn’t get the 401(k) match that was offered to the engineers. Really, he says the machinists’ contract wasn’t that much better.

"It had its own drawbacks. But the union leadership at the point they decide this is the best they’re going to get, they sell it as outstanding, the company sells it as outstanding, SPEEA wants the same outstanding contract," Stamper said. "We’re in the unfortunate position that we can’t really talk about the cons to their contract."

That would have made the machinists unhappy, he says.

Growing workplace dissatisfaction

But the backdrop to the contentious talks with the engineers was growing dissatisfaction in the workplace. Boeing had just bought the defense company McDonnell Douglas and seemed to import what SPEEA leaders say was its bean-counting, anti-union culture.

A new vice president ticked off the engineers even more by saying they had to understand they were no longer at the center of the universe.

Stan Sorscher led the SPEEA negotiating team in 2000.

"It sent the message – you’re just a commodity," Sorscher said. "If you don’t like it, don’t let the door hit you on the butt on the way out."

The engineers and technicians said what they wanted was respect and more say in their work.

All of this led up to February 9th, 2000. A federal mediator failed to broker a deal. The union had voted narrowly to strike – but how many would walk?

A heck of a burn barrel

The answer was -  thousands. They rallied and then hit the picket sites, which they engineered with characteristic attention to detail. Instead of spending his days designing military radar, SPEEA leader Tom McCarty crafted a heck of a burn barrel.

"We took the barrel and there were lids available down at the junkyard, so we got some lids and some stove pipe – turned out these worked a lot better than the open barrels," McCarty said. He's since printed up a brochure on how to create one.

McCarty’s burn barrels polluted less, gave off more heat and have since been used by other strikers.

SPEEA's current president, Tom McCarty, in front of one of the burn barrels he designed in the 2000 strike
SPEEA's current president, Tom McCarty, in front of one of the burn barrels he designed in the 2000 strike
Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU

But these meticulous folks also embraced the theater of the strike. They marched to bagpipe music, cooked hot dogs, pancakes and chili on the burn barrels - and one union member got creative in his attempt to get management's attention.

He "decided he'd learn to play the trumpet during the strike," says John McLaren, a 33-year Boeing engineer and a member of SPEEA's current negotiating team. But really all that guy wanted to do was aim his trumpet at corporate headquarters and blast unlistenable sounds out of it.

"I think maybe he wasn't serious about learning to play," McLaren says.

Sen. Bill Bradley, who was running for president, visited the strikers, as did Vice President Al Gore
Sen. Bill Bradley, who was running for president, visited the strikers, as did Vice President Al Gore
Credit SPEEA

There was a lot of joking around, but it wasn’t always easy. Some strikers had trouble paying their bills. Money did stream in from other unions, and people in the Puget Sound region donated food – even a truckload of onions. And it turned out the company was suffering more than the strikers.

The company failed to deliver three dozen airplanes, according to Seattle Times reports.

Wall Street pressure?

The stock was dropping, investors were getting mad. Union negotiator Stan Sorscher and SPEEA Executive Director Charlie Bofferding flew down to Napa Valley to crash a Boeing investor conference. They met with money managers who asked them what they wanted. Sorscher says they told them the dollar amount and one big investor who had been scribbling the figures down, stopped.

"And he got to the number at the bottom and he goes, I lose that in round-off error every day – you know this is nothing to me," Sorscher said. "And he slams his notebook, his little folder, and he says okay, good, and three days later, the wheels were moving."

Sorscher believes the investors put pressure on Boeing to meet the union’s terms. In the end, the company gave them everything they wanted. Bigger raises, no medical cost-sharing, a bonus – and the promise of a say in the future of the company.

Cynthia Cole later became president of the union. She says it was a clear-cut win.

"We knew we could hang out longer than they could – and we did," Cole said.

It was a victory – but for how long? Tomorrow, KPLU will explore the aftermath at Boeing and for the broader labor movement tomorrow.