TOPICS > Economy

White Collar Strike: Boeing

March 22, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


WORKER: We did it. We did it.

WORKER: Good job!

MIKE JAMES: The largest white collar strike in American history ended with a jubilant rally early Monday morning. (Cheering) 17,000 engineers came back to work after a 40-day walkout against aerospace giant Boeing. The union, called SPEEA, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, had virtually no strike experience before, just a single-day walkout in 56 years.

SPOKESPERSON: Brothers and sisters, Rich Trumka. (Applause)

MIKE JAMES: AFL-CIO National Secretary, Rich Trumka, praised the engineers for their solidarity on the picket lines.

RICHARD TRUMKA: Now Boeing thought you wouldn’t strike, but you did. Boeing thought you wouldn’t stick together, but you did. Boeing thought you wouldn’t last, but you did.

MIKE JAMES: The union won almost everything it wanted: A wage increase of 17% over three years, 9% of it guaranteed, for the first time. $1,000 bonus, more if planes are delivered on time, no premiums or co-pays on medical insurance, a new arrangement with Boeing that gives the engineers a stronger voice inside the company. Boeing’s CEO, Phil Condit, calls it a “balanced” contract.

PHIL CONDIT, CEO, Boeing Co.: It is a very fair agreement, in my judgment. I think it meets the needs of SPEEA, and I believe it protects the long-term competitive position of the Boeing Company. And both of those are very important.

MIKE JAMES: This strike, unexpected in its length, also left an important legacy for the engineers who walked out.

RICHARD TRUMKA: You lasted 40 days…


RICHARD TRUMKA: …And commanded not only the respect you deserve, but the attention of the entire nation. And I’ve got to tell you, brothers and sisters, you’ve earned the admiration, the respect, and the appreciation of the entire labor movement from all 40 million of us.

MIKE JAMES: The economics of the strike squeezed both sides. The union had no strike fund, no treasury to help bail out workers on the picket lines. Boeing had 41 planes scheduled for delivery last month. The company said only 15 went out on time. Without engineers, Boeing could not certify the safety of new aircraft, a requirement under federal law. Planes stacked up on the side of Boeing airfield, all at a time when Boeing is losing market share to European rival, Airbus.

PETER CONTE, Boeing Spokesman: Well, clearly it has slowed the delivery sequence, the certification of commercial airplanes, and we are seeing impacts in production areas. So clearly, if you have, you know, upwards of 75% of your engineering and technical workforce out, and as valuable a workforce as that is, you’re going to see the impacts. And we have been and will continue to see them.

MIKE JAMES: The strike also delayed Boeing work on the joint strike fighter, a plane the company is developing in direct competition with another American company, Lockheed. During the strike, the price of Boeing’s shares dropped 25% to a 52-week low. Some Boeing professionals began to look for jobs at other industries. Hundreds of strikers lined up just last week at a local career transition fair. But so far, an undetermined number of engineers actually accepted jobs outside Boeing before the strike ended. Finally, early last Friday in Washington, D.C., negotiators meeting in secret, worked out a new agreement. Over the weekend, more than 70% of union members voted yes on the new contract.

STEPHEN CLARK, Boeing Engineer: We’re glad to get back to work and build some great airplanes, and…


STEPHEN CLARK: …This feels really good. I mean everybody here is really thrilled.

CHARLES BOFFERDING: The secret to success is not to take victory laps.


MIKE JAMES: Union executive director Charles Bofferding, an engineer who once worked on Boeing defense contracts, believes the dominant issue was more than wages, and benefits, and bonuses. The engineers and technicians wanted something they thought they had lost at Boeing– respect.

CHARLES BOFFERDING: Do we care about you? Do we respect you? Do we have any commitment to you? Or is everyone a mercenary who just comes and goes on a day-by- day basis?

MIKE JAMES: The men and women on strike voiced the same resentment that Boeing, especially since the merger with McDonnell-Douglas three years ago, had become less family, more impersonal, more focused on profits than quality. They said the special status of engineers, the people who design Boeing planes and test flight systems, began to erode.

BRUCE ANDERSON, Boeing Engineer: I think upper management needs to take a change of direction in the way they treat their employees. For several years now, I personally have felt like I haven’t been valued with this company. I’ll be 21 years with this company next month, and here I am holding a picket sign.

RICHARD COLE: There is a right and wrong way to do a cheese sandwich, and I know engineers know the right and wrong way to do everything, right?

MIKE JAMES: Cynthia Cole, a defense contract engineer at Boeing for 21 years and her husband Richard, an architect, saw the strike coming. They saved money to get through these weeks. She agrees that in the strike, something more than wages was at stake.

CYNTHIA COLE: Things that pushed us over the edge were some of the comments out of corporate that– I’m not going to quote them exactly– but it made us realize that they didn’t value us as assets and we could be easily replaced.

RICHARD COLE: Comments to that effect.

CYNTHIA COLE: Comments to that effect, right. And so those are the kinds of things that got people to say, “what are we doing, you know? We’ve got to take a stand here. And if we don’t do it now, it’s all lost.”

DAVID OLSON: Take backs, the benefits…

MIKE JAMES: Dr. David Olson, Professor of Labor Studies at the University of Washington, received e-mail from Boeing engineers during the strike containing an anger he had not seen before, all focused on the changed environment inside the company.

DAVID OLSON: The absence of respect is a terribly powerful instrument among working people. It’s interesting to read the accounts of the stock analysts in New York who are saying, “Boeing workers are being vague about their demands. We can’t figure out what they want.” Well, that’s because the analysts aren’t looking at what the central issue has become, and it is respect.

MIKE JAMES: Boeing’s answer to these questions about family and respect is that competition in the global economy requires a different culture inside the factory.

PHIL CONDIT: We are not a family; we are a team. And we’re looking for the best performers on that team. We’re looking for the best performance from that team. And that’s not an easy transition, but it is a very important one.

PEOPLE SHOUTING: We want respect! We want respect!

MIKE JAMES: AFL-CIO. Leaders say that with blue collar industries in decline, the future of labor is in organizing white collar professionals. As the engineers rallied for the last time, Richard Trumka looked beyond the wages and bonuses in the new contract.

RICHARD TRUMKA: You see, brothers and sisters, this was more than just the largest strike by private- sector professionals in the history of our movement. It was a turning point in that history. Millions, millions of white collar and professional workers in our country now know they can build a better future for their families by joining and forming unions.

MIKE JAMES: Boeing management chose its own words carefully after the settlement.

PHIL CONDIT: I think that we can look back at this as a turning point, a time when it was clearly recognized how important it is and will be to listen carefully and understand each other.

MIKE JAMES: And as the strikers went back, Boeing announced that, despite the delays from the engineers’ walkout, they expect to meet all financial goals for the year 2000, including all the projected deliveries of commercial aircraft.