The next generation

The bitter strike at Boeing underscores sweeping cultural changes at the company.

AT A RALLY for striking Boeing workers, Pat Waters, an official of the company's engineers union, strikes a deeply resonant note. "I've worked here for 37 years," Waters tells a crowd of several hundred preparing to march to company headquarters. "My uncle worked here. Both my cousins worked here. All my family worked here." He is, in other words, typical of the kind of employees who have long worked at Boeing, people with multiple and profound ties to the company, who have taken seriously the notion of a Boeing family.

It's a notion that is disintegrating. But Waters says he has a message for Boeing president Harry Stonecipher, who arrived at the company three years ago after its merger with McDonnell Douglas: "We're a family. He's just not part of it."

The crowd cheers, whistles, and laughs. Then it takes up a chant: "Off-load Harry! Off-load Harry!" It goes on for so long that rally organizers have to plead for silence to make way for other speakers.

Standard strike rhetoric perhaps, but at a company where loyalty and a discretion bordering on secretiveness have always been the rule, it represents a dramatic cultural shift. Workers are more openly critical of management than ever before. That's because many see management as undermining the values that the company has always stood for, namely its dedication to people and quality.

In itself, the strike of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) is extraordinary. There have been strikes at Boeing before, but those were by the more militant machinists union. Aside from a one-day walkout, SPEEA hadn't taken such action in its entire 50-year history, and its white-collar engineers and technical workers generally didn't think of themselves as the kind of people who went out on strike. "We surprised ourselves," says a sober-faced engineer named Gary, walking back from the rally with his young daughter. "Even the people who have always said that whatever is good for the company is good for us, the conservatives of the conservatives, they're out on strike."

Obviously, these folks hated the contract they were offered, the initial version of which required them to pay a portion of their medical premiums for the first time. But more than the dollar amounts at stake, they felt that the company was dealing with them in a new way. SPEEA executive director Charles Bofferding says that the company's second offer, while making concessions on medical premiums and other areas, contained a few clauses that could only be viewed as "mean-spirited." One slashed life insurance benefits from two-and-a-quarter times workers' salaries to a mere $32,000—"just enough to buy a coffin," scoffed one striker.

Boeing spokesperson Peter Conte says that the company was only giving SPEEA what it said it wanted, the same contract that the machinists union got, which included a bonus but also had the lower life insurance benefit.

Engineers and technical workers, however, saw it as a slap in the face, one that was consistent with a dismissive attitude toward employees that had been building for years. Striker Bruce Van Aken voices a common refrain: "At one time Boeing had an orientation toward people. Now its orientation is toward making shareholders and Wall Street happy."

Workers say a hallmark of the change is management's replacement of the concept of a Boeing "family" with that of "teams." It sounds like a subtle distinction, but as another striker named Gary puts it, "If you're a team, you can just take somebody off the field. It's not as poignant as if they're a family member." Boeing has, in fact, been laying off workers by the tens of thousands, hemorrhaging 34,000 jobs nationwide since the end of '98. Layoffs, of course, are nothing new to Boeing, given its boom and bust cycles. Workers feel now, though, that management is approaching the matter more ruthlessly.

THEY APPEAR to be right. Conte, the company spokesperson, explains that the "team" terminology came about as the result of a "cultural audit" two years ago. Boeing's "family element" was found to be a liability, he says, because "in a family, you continue to take care of everybody whether they can contribute or not." Boeing thus deliberately wanted a more cold-blooded approach, one that did not accommodate "weaker members of the family," as Conte puts it.

Conte says that the team concept still emphasizes the importance of people, who "are key to making a team successful." But he acknowledges that the company may have had a "temporary loss of focus on the people question" because of intense pressure to focus on its bottom line. He points to the disastrous production problems a few years back that led to embarrassing and costly delays on orders, coinciding with Boeing's first financial loss in 1997. On top of all that, Conte says, the company has had to deal with fierce competition from Airbus and the integration of thousands of new employees due to its mergers with Rockwell Aerospace and McDonnell Douglas.

Critically, McDonnell Douglas gave Boeing its new president. The blunt, hard-charging Stonecipher has wielded enormous influence, even though he is technically second fiddle to CEO and Boeing long-timer Phil Condit. Stonecipher has been an unapologetic proponent of cost-cutting and cultural change.

Wall Street has applauded. "The way [Boeing] was, it nearly ran into the ground," says Paul Nisbet, a financial aerospace analyst at JSA Research in Rhode Island. "It had to change." With healthy profits in sight, the company's stock price has finally started to climb after a long decline.

Many workers, however, question whether the focus on cost-cutting is short-sighted, and not just because it has meant treating employees in a way that alienates them. They say that the company's investment in research and development is not what it used to be. Rather than coming out with new planes, they say, the company is making minor changes to existing models. "They're looking for the bottom line rather than reaching for the sky as we did at one time," says David Clay, a toolmaker and one of the more outspoken shop stewards in the machinists union. It's not forgotten that Stonecipher was the man who buried rather than revived McDonnell Douglas' ailing commercial division.

It's possible such dissatisfaction is tinged with nostalgia for a different era of plane-building, one in which wondrous advances in technology produced ever grander flying machines. The last real technological revolution in aerospace was about 35 years ago, when the jet engine replaced the propeller system and produced the massive 747. Moreover, Boeing has recently updated a number of models and only last week announced the launch of new versions of the 777 that will be able to travel much further without refueling.

Still, when the guys who build the planes say things like, "We used to concentrate on building quality products" (emphasis added), as one engineer does, you have to wonder.

Boeing workers shy away from saying that Boeing planes are in any way substandard—as yet. But there is a little less pride, and a lot more bitterness, in the voices of Boeing workers than there used to be. And their morale may only get worse. Speaking about the cultural changes under way, company spokesperson Conte says, "I think we're still at the beginning point."

For more information on the strike itself, see SPEEA's website at http://www.speea.org and Boeing's at http://www.boeing.com/news/feature/speea99.

 
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