There's strength in numbers, and maybe engineers should work together.
It's time to kill the myth that as professional workers, engineers do not need a labor union.
Today's complex and changing workplace makes representation by a labor union essential, according to many aerospace engineers. The backing of a group of like-minded workers such as engineers makes it easier to navigate a career and inject the engineering perspective into corporate boardrooms.
At The Boeing Co., for example, engineers who climbed the corporate ladder joined the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), an engineering union, early in their careers. The list of former members includes Alan Mulally, commercial airplane president, and Hank Queen, retired head of engineering.
T.A. Wilson, a founding member of SPEEA in 1944, went on to become CEO of Boeing. And another former Boeing CEO, Phil Condit, was also a union member.
"A union lets workers get their voice, expertise, and experience into the processes affecting their careers, profession, and products they build," says Charles Bofferding, executive director of SPEEA, which now represents 22,700 employees, including 13,757 engineers. For John McLaren, an aerospace customer-support engineer represented by SPEEA (IFPTE Local 2001), having a union is part of being a professional. "I want a contract that clearly spells out what my responsibilities are at work and what the company's responsibilities are to me," says McLaren, a 26-year union member. "I wouldn't buy a house without a contract or make any of the important decisions in my life without a contract. So why would I go to work without a contract?"
Engineering is one of the few fields where union membership is increasing in the United States. According to the U.S. Labor Dept., which combines engineers and architects, between 2003 and 2004, 7,000 engineers and architects joined unions. And although there are 246,000 engineers and architects in unions, that is only 9.5% of the 2.6 million engineers and architects working in the U.S.
Unions and collective bargaining can provide increased wages and benefits. But they can also lead to higher standards and better products for the company, according to engineer Cynthia Cole. The need for union representation hit home early in her career. Fresh out of college and excited to have a job in aerospace, a manager told Cole to keep quiet about a safety concern or risk dismissal. She left the company a short time later.
"An engineer should never have to choose between personal integrity and keeping their job," says Cole, now a product engineer at Boeing. As an elected member of the SPEEA Executive Board, Cole regularly participates on partnership committees formed jointly by SPEEA and Boeing.
"At SPEEA, we work with Boeing to raise the bar," she says. "Without a union, management doesn't have to listen to engineers or any employee. A union creates a check-andbalance system that is a real strength for the company."
Recognizing the benefits of joint cooperation and the perspective brought by engineers is the hallmark of a great company, according to SPEEA's Bofferding. "As engineers, we have a different perspective," says Bofferding. "If a company really wants to get its product to be the best in all areas, then it must listen to all sides. A union is the best vehicle to carry the engineers' perspective."
"As engineers, it's our duty and responsibility to protect and improve the system," Bofferding says. "The union provides a solid base to draw from to build a better future for engineers and the company." For example, back in 2004, Boeing management wanted to outsource aircraft maintenance manual writing to Chile. The collective voice of SPEEA members and the cooperative problem-solving nature of engineers helped turn around company plans and keep the business in the U.S. and inside Boeing.