The Boeing Co. turned 100 on July 15. Throughout the year, The Daily Herald is covering the people, airplanes and moments that define The Boeing Century. More about this series
Organized labor’s influence on Boeing runs back to the company’s earliest days. In 1917, the company changed job titles to make it harder for trade unions to organize its workers.
When workers unionized in 1935, Boeing didn’t support the effort, but the company didn’t vigorously oppose it, either. Violent clashes between pro- and anti-labor groups were not uncommon at the time. Boeing generally had good labor relations for the next few decades.
However, those relationships have deteriorated in more recent times, a decline exacerbated by workers’ and corporate executives’ feelings of increasing vulnerability to global economic forces. During that time, those executives have increasingly come to define the company’s success in terms of the size of shareholder dividends.
Anti-unionism runs deep in the aerospace industry. Many of its early leaders were staunch labor opponents. A 50-day strike in 1935 prompted Reuben Fleet to move his company, Consolidated Aircraft, from Buffalo, New York, to sunny San Diego, which offered tax concessions, better conditions for flight tests, and, most important, a low rate of organized labor.
That same year, a handful of Boeing workers voted to organize as part of the International Association of Machinists.
Organized labor was on the rise after decades of violent and bloody clashes. New federal law gave legal and political cover to unions, which were increasingly popular among workers feeling the gnawing anxiety and economic uncertainty brought by the Great Depression. Many employers used the threadbare job market to squeeze sweat out of workers, who had little choice but to comply: it was that or risk losing their jobs. With workers feeling used by their bosses and finding no shelter in the job market, it is little wonder they flocked to organized labor during the 1930s.
At the time, many Boeing workers left for better-paying jobs at shipyards. In the first issue of the District Lodge 751’s newspaper, the Aeromechanic, a worker reported, “So many of the boys have been leaving Boeing’s to go work at the Navy Yard for more money, that soon they’ll be able to build planes instead of ships in Bremerton.”
Boeing and Lodge 751 rapidly expanded during World War II. Black activists pushed the two to stop barring black workers. At the time, the IAM oath, which members repeated before every local meeting, included the pledge that “I will not recommend for membership in this union any other than members of the white race,” reported the Northwest Enterprise, a black newspaper in Seattle, in 1940. The union and Boeing blamed each other for racist hiring policies.
Federal pressure and the local campaign succeeded in opening Boeing to black workers. However, racism endured in the company’s plants, shops and offices to varying degrees. During the war, Boeing leaders considered building segregated plants in order to sidestep racial clashes.
By 1945, Lodge 751 leaders were calling to remove the racist clause from the IAM oath. It was taken out at the union’s 1948 national convention. Today, racism rarely comes up in discussions about Boeing’s workplaces. Indeed, members of the National Society of Black Engineers have named Boeing the top employer several times in recent years.
Labor and industry generally united behind the war effort. However, in 1943, some 20,000 machinists marched in Seattle’s streets to protest a wage freeze that they said was unfair to workers. Engineers started organizing in 1944, forming what is known today as the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA).
After the war, Boeing laid off more than 50,000 workers.
In 1948, machinists marched on picket lines during Boeing’s longest strike, which lasted nearly five months. In the end, Boeing largely won, and union members returned to work with little to show for their time on strike. At the same time, the IAM held off a bid by local Teamsters to oust the Machinists union from Boeing, which was collaborating with the Teamsters.
For the most part, Boeing and labor got along during the 1950s and 1960s. That era saw widespread labor and management cooperation as the American economy generally boomed.
“Labor turned inward and focused more on the bargaining table,” rather than advancing the broader labor movement, said Charlotte Garden, a professor at the Seattle University School of Law.
Boeing suffered from the airplane industry’s up-and-down cycles, resulting in big layoffs followed by waves of rehiring.
“Even with the layoffs, there was a sense of stability,” said Leon Grunberg, a University of Puget Sound sociology professor emeritus who has studied Boeing’s culture for more than 20 years. He and fellow UPS professor Sarah Moore have written two books on the subject: “Turbulence” and “Emerging from Turbulence.”
Some 80,000 workers were laid off during the Boeing bust of the late 1960s, but Machinists didn’t protest. They understood the financial trouble the company was in. That was a time when the company president Thornton “T” Wilson regularly walked the factory floors and ate lunch with workers in the cafeteria. And back then, CEO pay wasn’t tied to stock price.
Relations between workers and management began to change in the 1980s, a process that has accelerated since the 1990s.
While unions generally suffered political setbacks during the 1980s, the Machinists union at Boeing flexed its muscle in 1989. After contract negotiations stalled, 57,800 union members, including more than 43,000 in the Puget Sound region, walked out, shutting down jet assembly. They returned to work 44 days later, declaring victory.
Relations became so bad that historically docile SPEEA members went on strike in 2000, sporting placards reading: “No nerds, no birds.” With its stock price falling, Boeing blinked, giving in to most of SPEEA’s demands.
Despite the tactical wins, District Lodge 751, SPEEA and organized labor largely have been fighting an overall decline in power since then.
Myriad factors have hurt unions: overseas market pressures, increasing labor opposition, more sophisticated anti-union campaigns, stagflation in the 1970s and others. As unions have found it harder to win at the bargaining table, they have lost relevance to workers’ lives, Garden said.
The IAM couldn’t stop Boeing from opening a second 787 line in South Carolina, a bastion of the growing anti-labor movement. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley didn’t shy away in her 2012 state of the state address: “We’ll make the unions understand full well that they are not needed, not wanted, and not welcome.”
Boeing has used the threat of moving work out of state very effectively to weaken labor, Grunberg said. “Unions at Boeing are going to be weaker in the future.”
Even Boeing workers have low expectations for what the IAM or SPEEA can achieve, according to survey data collected by Grunberg and Moore.
In 2013, Boeing leaders stopped just short of actually threatening to take the company’s new airplane, the 777X, out of state if Machinists didn’t agree to significant contract concessions.
“This is my company, too,” said Daniel Swank, a mechanic on the Everett flight line, during a “vote no” rally on an icy November afternoon. “Many of us own stock in the company. I’m third-generation Boeing. I love this company, and I hate what they’re doing to us.”