When some 17,000 aerospace engineers and technical workers at Boeing put down their picket signs and returned to work this week, they ended the longest strike by private-sector, white-collar professionals in U.S. history.
|Boeing workers at the Renton, Wash., facility returned to work Monday.
Although AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka the former head of a coal miners union has more experience speaking on behalf of miners, factory workers and longshoremen, he was the one leading throngs of educated, well-paid engineers back through Boeing's gates after the 40-day strike.
Through that symbolic gesture, Trumka not only was celebrating the favorable contract won by members of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace; he was also celebrating what the union movement regards as a milestone in organized labor's efforts to expand its membership beyond traditional blue-collar workers.
Trumka said on Monday to the striking Boeing workers, who received a 3 percent annual pay increase, "Thanks to your willingness to put your jobs on the line, no corporation, however big, will ever challenge a union of white-collar workers without thinking twice."
The move into the white-collar arena may be essential to the long-term survival of organized labor. While union membership nationwide increased slightly in 1999, that was the first upswing in what had been a steady 20-year decline.
At its height in the 1950s, around 35 percent of American workers were union members. In 1999, slightly less than 14 percent of American workers belong to a union, and less than 10 percent of those were in the private sector.
It's difficult to know how many of those 10 percent would fall under the rubric of white-collar professionals, but union officials believe it's less than one percent.
"They are losing their traditional turf because technology is destroying the union base," said Richard Grippa, a professor at the University of Portland who studies labor issues in the airline industry. "They have to make a pitch to unionize whoever they can, and there is not a hell of a lot left. Of course they are going to say 'let's go after the more educated and the more trained.'"
AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, vice president Linda Chavez Thompson and Trumka have made it a key element of their campaign to organize a variety of workers to rejuvenate the union. And already, affiliates of the AFL-CIO have made some strides.
For instance, physicians and psychologists, concerned about the cost-cutting measures of health maintenance organizations, have begun organizing under a union banner.
Efforts also are under way to organize high-tech workers. The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers in Seattle has brought long-term, temporary employees at Microsoft into collective bargaining units. And in California's Silicon Valley, numerous unions now represent software engineers, programmers and testers.
Despite being in high demand, many high-tech workers are hired on a contingency basis, which means they most likely do not receive benefits. As a result, unions are luring these workers by offering group-rate health insurance, retirement plans, job leads and training programs.
Despite such inroads, union officials know their reach into the white-collar world still is minimal.
"The traditional view is that white-collar workers don't understand or value the solidarity and muscle that good union work can provide," said Rick Banks, the AFL-CIO's director of collective bargaining. "These employees (at Boeing) totally disproved that notion. They demolished that myth. This victory will help us very much in our effort to reach out to white-collar workers."
But Sophia Koropeckyj, a senior economist at RFA, a Pennsylvania-based research and consulting firm, doesn't believe the union victory at Boeing will lead to a rush to unions among professionals.
Engineers and technical workers at Boeing have been unionized for some time, she said, whereas in other industries the "brain power" has traditionally not joined unions.
And, she said, with a booming economy already forcing up wages, many white-collar employees don't feel the need to join unions.
"The situation with Boeing is not typical," she said. "I really don't see how this victory translates into their efforts to unionize white-collar employees."
And historically, the interests of white-collar professionals and blue-collar, low-wage employees are difficult to reconcile under the same union flag.
"In the 1950s, there were a lot of these so called white-collar unions," said Sanford Jacoby, a business professor at UCLA. "There were engineers who worked for large industrial companies like Boeing, GE and Westinghouse. People were predicting that this was the wave of the future. It never happened."
For one thing, white-collar professionals have traditionally shunned affiliating with blue-collar workers because they identify more closely with management, Jacoby said.
"It's conceivable that because of this gain at Boeing and recent examples of the unionization of physicians, we might see a little uptick," Jacoby said. "But they are rather a rarity and a throwback to an earlier era."
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