Union: Chicago could learn from Boeing’s history

If  Boeing Co. management in Chicago is serious about fixing its failed corporate culture, executives could start by studying the history of their own company, the leader of the Machinists Union’s District Lodge in Seattle said.

For most of Boeing’s history, managers and employee unions worked together for the benefit of both, said District 751 President Tom Wroblewski.

“It’s really only been since the merger with McDonnell Douglas (in 1997) that Boeing executives have started going to war against their own employees,” he continued. “And since Phil Condit and Harry Stonecipher moved Boeing headquarters to Chicago, the leadership there has developed this ‘us-against-them’ gang mentality that has really hurt the company.”

Wroblewski’s comments are printed in the September edition of the union’s AeroMechanic newsletter, which is now available online.

This month is the 75th anniversary of the formation of District 751, and much of the September AeroMechanic focuses on the long history between the union and the Boeing Co.

Prior to the formation of the union on Sept. 23, 1935, Boeing employed only day laborers to build its airplanes in Seattle. A crowd of potential workers gathered each morning at the factory gate, and foremen would pick who they wanted. The work typically went to friends of management, to those who were desperate enough to accept any wage – or to those who paid bribes.

The system isn’t that much different from what Boeing enjoys today, Wroblewski wrote in his monthly column. “The executives in Chicago send work to those places where friendly governments give them tax breaks or cash payments, or where desperate workers will accept any wage at all.”

The problem for Boeing in 1935, however, was that it had started building a new generation of aircraft that used start-of-the-art new aluminum technology, and the revolutionary new processes required a dedicated and permanent pool of skilled workers.

“Competition, favoritism and bribes kept Boeing’s costs down, but over time, management found that the lowest bidders (or biggest bribers) weren’t always the best workers,” Wroblewski wrote. “What they really needed to succeed was a dedicated, trained and experienced – and unionized – workforce right here in Puget Sound.”

Boeing relied on its skilled union workers for more than 70 years, but then walked away from its Puget Sound workforce to build the 787, which is now nearly three years late, thanks to a series of problems created by suppliers that Machinists and union engineers from SPEEA have struggled mightily to fix.

And last week, Boeing executives admitted that they’d created an environment where employees aren’t engaged and are reluctant to speak up, and revealed they’d brought in an outside consulting firm to help change that.

The move was mocked by some observers, who said the hiring of such consultants is typically a signal that corporate management has lost its way and is “looking for cover as they flounder and/or push hidden and failed agendas.”

Wroblewski said the best model for Boeing’s Chicago leadership to follow would be the company’s historical Seattle leadership style, which relied on the contributions and insights provided by front-line workers. Those workers and their expertise were seen as valued assets – and not as variable costs to be contained. This approach made Boeing the industry leader and a respected global brand.

“Historically, we had our share of disagreements with management, but we were always one Boeing Co.” he said.

“This lesson couldn’t be more relevant,” Wroblewsi added. “But it doesn’t seem like the gang in Chicago has learned from our shared history, sadly. They all went to college to study corporate finance, and the lessons of history – or the actual techniques of airplane manufacturing – just don’t seem to interest them.”

Also in this month’s AeroMechanic you can read:

Originally formed in Seattle in 1935 to represent hourly workers at Boeing, District 751 now represents more than 25,000 working men and women at 42 employers across Washington and California.

Become a fan of IAM 751 on Facebook.

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