Time for engineers to think about unionizing?

Jan. 19, 2012
It sometimes seems that professions and workers represented by unions do better than those without them. Examples include school teachers, autoworkers, airline pilots, state-employed doctors and dentists, and a host of others

It sometimes seems that professions and workers represented by unions do better than those without them. Examples include school teachers, autoworkers, airline pilots, state-employed doctors and dentists, and a host of others. So why haven’t more engineers jumped on the union bandwagon?

Traditionally, engineers have a reputation for individualism and shy away from unions. They seem to believe they can negotiate the pay and benefits they deserve. And if they don’t like the compensation or working conditions, they can always get another job with better benefits. Or at least that’s what they tell themselves.

To get an idea of what unions are doing for engineers, I talked to a few members of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), a union which represents 24,000 engineers working for Boeing and related companies. Some of the major benefits of union membership, according to members I spoke with, are better pay and benefits. They claim that while managers and other unrepresented workers have had to take pay cuts and give back benefits, sometimes on short notice, SPEEA engineers have always gotten raises, both for seniority and merit, as per their contract.

The union engineers and technicians say they also appreciate the security and peace of mind of a contract with well-defined policies governing pensions, hiring and layoffs, vacation, sick leave, and even overtime. And they say the union, along with its lawyers, will see to it that management meets its contractual obligations. This means management can’t fire union members on a whim or without just cause.
As one SPEEA member put it, “Many engineers say they are professionals and the company must treat them as such. But you’re still labor and they can treat you as they see fit. There’s nothing you can do about it except quit. And in this economy, that’s not always a good option, especially if you’re over 40. Heaven help you if you’re over 50 or 60.”

It’s true that if you accept an engineering position at Boeing or one of its related companies, you will be forced to join a union. “But the $40 a month it costs in dues is less than the benefits the union has negotiated,” says one 25-year Boeing worker. “And although I’ve seen several engineers who were a little grumpy at being lumped in with a union, they changed their tune when they ran into a problem with medical leave for taking care of a parent or spouse, or had a beef with a manager, and the union stepped in to resolve the problem.”

The same Boeing engineer noted that outside IT people and other engineering consultants who work at Boeing often confess to being jealous of the union’s benefits and contract package. “They also wouldn’t mind having a say about company policies and projects similar to what we enjoy.”

All the SPEEA folks I spoke with admit that any union is made up of people with different goals and opinions and that unions can have problems. But they also say those relatively small problems can be ironed out. They also agree that a good union does not want to hurt the company. All SPEEA members I spoke with say they take great pride in Boeing and the planes and equipment the company designs and builds and want the company to survive and thrive.

So why do you think engineers have avoided unions for all these years?

— Stephen J. Mraz

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

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