Strike echoes in white-collar world
SEATTLE -- 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.