Bill Virgin: Boeing becomes test case for worker-employee relations

Boeing’s prototype KC-46 tanker aircraft, a 767-2C, conducts testing on its inaugural flight at Paine Field in Everett on December 28, 2014.
Boeing’s prototype KC-46 tanker aircraft, a 767-2C, conducts testing on its inaugural flight at Paine Field in Everett on December 28, 2014. Boeing

What’s your job to you?

For many people a job is just that, a place to go for eight hours a day and be handed a check for doing useful work. Neither employees nor employers expect anything more out of the arrangement. To employers, employees are one more variable-cost line item. Employees, meanwhile, define themselves and their lives by something other than their jobs.

Then there are those jobs that constitute not just an occupation or a career but almost a calling. It’s a source of personal motivation and pride, a source of personal identity. For those workers, the job is an emotional commitment as much as a financial one.

For multiple generations of Puget Sounders, a job at Boeing used to represent the latter experience. In recent years the company has shifted — some would say consciously and deliberately — to the former model.

That’s not to say that employees of what’s often referred to as Heritage Boeing universally or unreservedly loved the company or its executives or managers. They were quite capable of expressing their displeasure on occasion, such as through strikes.

But Boeing employees expressed considerable pride in where they worked and what they built. It was their company, too — that loyalty wasn’t hurt by wages and benefits sufficient to elevate employees into solidly middle-class lives.

That connection has been tested in recent years, not just by boom-and-bust cycles, layoffs and hiring sprees, but by a succession of executive pronouncements and decisions, the most dramatic being the once-unthinkable steps of moving the headquarters to Chicago and opening a second commercial-jet production center in South Carolina.

The eroding of the connection has implications for both employer and employees, and since there are nearly 80,000 Boeing employees in Washington, that means it has huge implications for the economic future of this state.

Deciphering employee attitudes at Boeing is the subject of a book released last week, “Emerging From Turbulence: Boeing and Stories of the American Workplace Today,” by Leon Grunberg, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Puget Sound, and Sarah Moore, chair and professor of psychology at UPS.

The title is a reference to an earlier work the two collaborated on, “Turbulence: Boeing and the State of American Workers and Managers,” published in 2010. That book examined the results of a series of worker surveys over the course of a decade (1996-2006).

The new book is structured somewhat differently. Rather than mixing survey data with quotes and anecdotes, the authors let the workers tell their tales themselves (divided into sections according to whether the employees are retired, still at Boeing or joined in the post-merger era).

Not shockingly, they found changes in attitudes in the workforce because of the shift in the implied or social contract.

Some, the authors noted, still cling to a notion of a Boeing “family,” while others “speak wistfully and powerfully of the loss.” Still others have “detached emotionally from the company,” and a handful are outright alienated from it and their work.

Does it really matter if Boeing employees don’t feel loved or love their company? They’ve still got jobs, no small matter given the recession we’ve been through, and at pay levels that still compare quite favorably with the rest of the workforce. As measured by the company’s stock price and financial performance — the objects of heightened executive focus — the new Boeing is doing great.

The authors and some of the interviewees suggest that it does matter. “Whether they are on the factory floor or at their desks, employees often have invaluable knowledge of workplace problems and insightful suggestions as to their solutions,” they write. It wasn’t just job preservation that led Boeing workers to question the company’s grand global-outsourcing strategy for the 787.

Nor do many Boeing workers want to see that debacle repeated, weakening the company’s long-term competitiveness. “They worry about the loss of valuable tribal knowledge, not only due to excessive outsourcing but also when employees retire without careful transmission of expertise to new hires,” they write.

Worker attitudes and what employers and employees expect or want from each other aren’t just issues for Boeing. Amazon finds itself in the midst of a national controversy over allegations about how it treats its workers and what that means for attracting and retaining workers. Meanwhile, almost every workplace is likely to go through a massive shift as baby boomers retire, to be succeeded by younger workers with different attitudes and expectations of what a job should look like.

The new Boeing may be succeeded by an even newer Boeing as the new CEO takes over. Or it may decide that the current model works fine and it’s up to workers to conform to the new reality. The multigenerational legacy of “my job, my company” can be eroded in short order. Does that matter in the long run? Here’s your test case.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at