By Michelle Dunlop Herald Writer
They’re the nerds behind the birds.
They’re the innovators, the visionaries behind Boeing Co. aircraft.
They are members of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace.
Although Boeing prides itself on innovation, the company would prefer not to deal with a union that represents those forward-thinkers, said Tom McCarty, SPEEA president.
“I think the reality is that we have no relationship. … If we were to disappear, they wouldn’t miss us,” he said.
Still, Boeing and its engineers union have come to terms on labor contracts without strikes in all but two negotiations in SPEEA’s more than 60-year history. In 1993, SPEEA members staged a one-day strike.
Seven years later, SPEEA would lead what was, at the time, the longest white- collar strike in the country.
“We did have one strike, a 40-day strike, that shut down production,” McCarty said. “But we’re not repetitive (at striking).”
Since the 2000 strike, McCarty said, the engineers have approved their contracts from Boeing by a wide margin — 70 percent or more. That’s due in large part because the company is listening more than it had and is more willing to negotiate.
In 2000, Boeing came into negotiations with a plan and didn’t want to listen to SPEEA members’ needs, McCarty said.
“Boeing management wasn’t willing to bargain during the 2000 negotiations,” McCarty said.
Membership in SPEEA, which had been at 42 percent of the engineers and technical workers before the strike, swelled to more than 65 percent. And SPEEA had affiliated itself the previous fall with the AFL-CIO.
The affiliation with big labor and the strike “transformed SPEEA,” Margaret Levi of the University of Washington’s Center for Labor Studies told The Herald in 2000. “This is now a militant union capable of affecting Boeing’s profits and hurting Boeing in the pocketbook.
“They have been extraordinarily successful in mobilizing their members and nonmembers in a sustained and difficult strike,” she said.
Ultimately, the union said it went on strike in 2000 to gain respect.
Yet, even after settling the 2000 strike, Boeing went forward with its plan to outsource some of the engineers’ and technical workers’ jobs on the 787 program, a delayed airplane that depends heavily on global suppliers.
Boeing said that it needed help with cash and risk, McCarty said. And with partners, Boeing wouldn’t need to hire thousands of workers for the early development of a new plane only to lay them off later. That sounds good on the face of it, McCarty said.
“But which work do you send and who do you send it to? If we’re not doing that development work in-house, we lose the ability to do it,” he said.
Bill Dugovich, SPEEA’s communications director, described members as “very angry” at having to fix problems caused by the outsourcing of engineering work. But McCarty said he’s encouraged by comments by Boeing leaders that the company is bringing back more of that work. Boeing’s announcement earlier this month that it will expand its composites fabrication and assembly center in south Seattle could be evidence of that, he said.
Although the Machinists struck Boeing in 2008, SPEEA was able to negotiate a contract with Boeing that met engineers’ and technical workers’ needs, McCarty said.
“We felt we did well,” he said.
Bringing the union members’ concerns and needs to the company remains SPEEA’s purpose, its value into the future, he said.
“If unions aren’t there to enhance and protect those things … companies tend to chip away at (wages and benefits),” McCarty said.