Did the Boeing engineers' strike of 2000 succeed in the long run?

Jan 10, 2013

When Boeing engineers and technicians walked off the job 13 years ago, they said it wasn’t just for more money. They wanted to improve the culture of the company and chart a new course for organized labor. Did they succeed?

At first blush, it looked like a resounding success. The Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, or SPEEA, had won a contract with everything they had asked for. Executive Director Charlie Bofferding was triumphant in an interview with KING 5.

“We’re interacting now based on power and respect, and that’s where we want to be,” Bofferding said.

Credit SPEEA

‘Like Christmas’

There was a lot of euphoria – initially – when strikers headed back to work after their 40 days on the picket line. Tony Hickerson is a Boeing technician who had not struck because his job was not part of the bargaining unit.

“When those people came back to work, it was like Christmas,” Hickerson said. "It was like, they’re back here, and there was a lot of embracing and then boom, let’s go get this done. It was huge. I got chills and I was on the sideline.”

But after that initial exhilaration, reality sunk in. The engineers and technicians had gone on strike to improve workplace culture. Instead, the strike exacerbated tensions. People who had walked out resented people who had crossed the picket lines. Managers felt betrayed. The strikers were still wary of their bosses.

`Captain of the Titanic’

Hank Queen had been promoted to a job called vice president of capacity and components – three days after the strike began. In essence, he was in charge of workforce management, but a whole lot of his workforce was outside holding picket signs.

“I hate to say this, but what I felt like was I got promoted to be captain of the Titanic right after it hit the iceberg,” Queen said.

When engineers and technicians did come back, Queen soon realized the depths of the problems. He says people were jumping ship left and right – and these were really talented people, like a friend of his who was a 25-year veteran of the company.

“This guy called me to tell me how things were going in the workplace and at the end of the conversation, he literally was in tears and he resigned from Boeing. He couldn’t take it anymore,” Queen said.

Culture shift

Why were people so unhappy?

Union negotiator Stan Sorscher says it wasn’t just resentments due to the strike. One of the main reasons engineers and technicians had walked out was to regain a voice in decision-making.

Boeing had just bought the defense contractor McDonnell Douglas and seemed more concerned with cutting costs than designing new planes. Engineers felt like their good ideas were turned down as the company pinched pennies.

Then when they came back to work, Sorscher says people were frustrated the atmosphere hadn’t changed in spite of what they thought had been a victory.

“There was a question of broken trust career-wise between the workers and the executives – this was really that challenge,” Sorscher said. “If I’m going to commit my career to your business, you have to convince me you’re in it for the long run. And a lot of people said I’m convinced they’re not in it for the long run.”

The People Plan

That daunting task of making unhappy people happy and getting them excited to work fell on the shoulders of Hank Queen. He needed to show workers the company was in it for the long run, that managers did respect and value employees. And he had to do it pronto - Boeing was behind schedule on dozens of planes.

He didn’t know what to do. But he started with something very simple – he listened to each employee.

“If you want to know what people need, the best thing to do is ask them,” Queen said. “Don’t try to invent it, don’t try to guess it, don’t survey it out, don’t do all that stuff, just ask them a question. So to get people better connected to their own manager, we asked people what’s most important to you and why?”

That was the genesis of something Queen called the People Plan. Employees worked with their managers to spell out what exactly they needed to make work life more rewarding. Teams of employees were encouraged to pick processes they wanted to improve and then do it. Queen made these changes in partnership with SPEEA so the two sides weren’t strangers.

That paid off when contract talks came around. Negotiations in 2002, 2005 and 2008 went much more smoothly.

University of Puget Sound sociology professor Leon Grunberg co-wrote the book Turbulence: Boeing and the State of American Workers and Managers. He says when he surveyed employees in 2006, they were a lot happier than in 2000.

“What we found is that a lot of the indicators that had gone down – levels of trust, commitment, engagement, identification with the company – improved in 2006 across the board,” Grunberg said.

Outsourcing threat

But while all this collaborative work was going on in the factories and design centers, top management was charting a different course. Union leader Stan Sorscher says engineers initially were thrilled when Boeing announced it would build a brand-new, cutting-edge plane – the 787. Then came the disappointment.

“This is our opportunity as employees to really contribute to the success of our products and the success in the marketplace – alright, now we’re onto something. And then we start looking at how is this going to work exactly? Where do we make our contribution?” Sorscher said.

A new United Airlines 787
A new United Airlines 787
Credit Anthony Dolce

That’s because Boeing had chosen to outsource much of the design and production of the 787 – a move that later proved to be a costly mistake. But it’s an example of broader forces going on in the economy – globalization, outsourcing, that have made American workers much less secure.

Example for other white-collar unions?

People in the labor movement had hoped SPEEA’s strike would spark a new wave of unionizing among white-collar workers, but that hasn’t really happened. Instead, public sentiment has turned against unions, says Gary Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University in Massachusetts.

“Within our society, there’s a huge wave of anti-unionism and the perception that when jobs are scarce, unions are part of the problem, not part of the solution,” Chaison said.

I asked Bofferding, executive director of SPEEA in 2000, whether he thought the strike had a lasting effect on the labor movement.

“I’d have to say certainly less than we would have liked,” Bofferding said. “At that time, what SPEEA was going for was an attempt to rebrand the labor movement from the people who beat up bad management to the people who made working in America better for everyone. I don’t know that that message stuck.”

Frustrations building again

Union leaders say the respect engineers gained from Boeing after the 2000 strike now appears to have dissipated. They say the level of frustration they’re feeling in contract talks this time is similar to back in 1999/2000. They say they don’t feel heard and the company is continuing to emphasize cost-cutting even as profits and revenue soar. Tom McCarty is president of SPEEA.

“When the Boeing Company sits down and says to be competitive, we’re only willing to pay the market average wage, I’m thinking we’re the premiere aerospace company in the world, why would our workforce have to be paid the same as any other worker in any other factory in the United States?” McCarty said.

Labor, he says, has to take a stand against a downward spiral in compensation triggered by outsourcing. And McCarty says if need be, taking a stand might mean another strike.