SPEEA Union (Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace)

  • By Ross Rieder
  • Posted 3/20/2000
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2211
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In early 1944, a few score engineers at the Boeing Company founded the Seattle Professional Engineering Employees Association. Although not quite a union in the traditional sense, the new group worked to represent the interests of engineers and technicians at Boeing. Relations were generally cordial, but growing strains led SPEEA members to conduct a one-day protest strike in January 1993. Tensions -- and opportunities for organizing -- increased following Boeing's merger with McDonnell Douglas in 1997. Two years later, SPEEA broadened its mandate by officially changing its name to the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, and affiliated with the AFL-CIO. On February 9, 2000, some 17,000 SPEEA members launched a strike that ended 40 days later with some company concessions.

Professionals Unite?

Contrary to popular belief, union efforts to organize professional and technical white-collar workers did not begin in the late twentieth century. As early as the 1940s, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) made attempts to organize engineering groups around the nation.

At the Boeing Company, engineers countered with a movement to form a protective organization. They shied away from idea of "unionization" because many felt that engineers were professionals whose interests would not be properly represented by traditional trade unions. Like teachers and health professionals at the time, they sought to win collective bargaining rights without acquiring a "working class" taint.

Founding SPEEA

The first meeting of the Seattle Professional Engineering Employees Association (SPEEA) was held on March 6, 1944. Of the 40 to 60 members of the original group, 10 very active individuals spent the next year formulating guidelines, discussing potential problems, and signing up members.

An attempt in the autumn of 1945 by IAM [International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers] District Lodge 751 to organize Boeing engineers failed to attract support. In fact, by late 1945, a substantial majority of Boeing engineers had signed petitions designating SPEEA as their collective bargaining representative.

The company refused automatic recognition, so an election and formal certification by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) took place. On May 8, 1946, SPEEA carried the NLRB election by 81 percent. Within two weeks, negotiations between SPEEA and Boeing had begun.

In the late 1940s, the Boeing company encouraged Dave Beck, then president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, to intervene in one of SPEEA's NLRB elections. Employers regarded Beck as more "reasonable" than most union leaders, and he sought to hitch more professional and technical workers to the Teamster's wheel, but the effort failed to persuade SPEEA members. Meanwhile, in 1948, IAM workers conducted a bitter 148-day strike against Boeing that hardened management resistance to organized labor.

Postwar Growth

During World War II, government restrictions were imposed on movement from one job to another by employees considered essential to national emergencies. After the war, aerospace companies continued to control engineers and compensation by preventing a company from making an offer of employment to an engineer without consent of the current employer. This gentlemen's agreement was finally discontinued in 1956 after SPEEA printed a letter from the US Air Force Assistant Secretary that the policy no longer existed.

Over the decades, other groups of professional and technical workers at Boeing have been amalgamated into SPEEA. In October 1946, tooling engineers joined SPEEA with a 94 percent majority vote. In July 1948, an NLRB election involving chemists was held. Their ballot asked them to chose among SPEEA, IAM 751, and Teamster Local 451 (then being used by AFL to intervene). Just before a November runoff election, the issue resolved itself in favor of SPEEA. In total, nearly a dozen employee groups at Boeing were organized by SPEEA over the next five decades.

In the summer of 1949, SPEEA's negotiation team rejected the company's contract offer. The company petitioned the NLRB to hold a recertification vote to determine if the union really represented its members. By a vote of 83.2 percent, the engineers sent a clear message to the company that it should not doubt their will.

Because many Boeing executives rose from the ranks of engineers, management-SPEEA relations could create some odd hybrids. T.A. Wilson, Boeing President from 1968 to 1985, joined SPEEA in 1948. Though he questioned whether a group of professionals should be represented by a union, he participated in SPEEA and served on the Executive Committee until he was promoted into management in 1951. Phil Condit, present Boeing CEO, is also a former SPEEA member.

Engineer or Machinist?

The issue of affiliation of SPEEA to an international union has taken a quarter of a century to resolve. In February 1975, members adopted a motion to investigate affiliation. By autumn 1976, most members accepted the report that indicated that SPEEA could provide better representation than any multi-unit international union.

Over the decades, IAM District Lodge 751 has been both a spur in the side and a spur under the hide of SPEEA. The Machinists union at Boeing was chartered in 1935. In 1945, it made an unsuccessful attempt to organize the engineering workers.

In 1971, there was an election to include about 1,700 technical employees into the SPEEA bargaining unit. IAM District Lodge 751 and the American Federation of Technical Engineers (soon to become the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, AFL/CIO) shared the ballot. Following appeals in early 1972, SPEEA became bargaining agent for the new group.

The Gloves Come Off -- Slowly

Through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the union kept itself busy with the development of its particular internal culture. In the 1960s, it produced a weekly radio talk show, "Exploring the World of Science and Engineering," which was broadcast by KOMO radio. An area representative system was established to improve communications among members.

The union moved from the Arctic Building in downtown Seattle to a complex at Barton Place in the Rainier Valley. Later, SPEEA built a new building in Tukwila. The union gained stature and strength by sponsoring continuing education programs for engineers, creating an Engineering Retirees Association, and instituting a system of monthly membership surveys to monitor member attitudes and needs.

SPEEA Hits the Bricks For a Day

Contract negotiations with Boeing turned frosty in the winter of 1992, and SPEEA members voted by more than 70 percent to reject the company's contract offer and to authorize their negotiation team to call a strike. In December, company management declared impasse and notified SPEEA that selected provisions of its contract offer would be implemented. Just before Christmas, SPEEA members rallied at the Museum of Flight on the theme of forcing the company back to the bargaining table.

Attempts by the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service failed to force company negotiators to resume bargaining. On January 19, 1993, SPEEA's negotiation team called the first ever SPEEA strike. The one-day strike allowed SPEEA-represented employees to protest company hard-ball tactics. Nearly 80 percent of members vacated the workplace.

At the end of January, Boeing announced production cuts and projected large job cuts. Taking a practical approach, SPEEA focused on settling the contractual retention rating system that made layoff decisions less arbitrary. Saving their energy for a later fight, SPEEA members accepted that contract in February 1992.

White Collar Blues

When Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas on August 1, 1997, it became the world's largest aerospace corporation. The merger also introduced new volatility into management-labor relations by diluting Boeing workers' sense of "family loyalty" and by creating new union organizing opportunities, especially among white collar employees.

In 1998, Teamster organizers challenged SPEEA for the right to represent Boeing's 4,200 technical employees in Wichita, Kansas. SPEEA resisted the incursion, but the contest renewed discussion of affiliation with the AFL-CIO, which banned such "raids" by one member union on another.

In September 1999, IAM District Lodge 751 won a new contract with an average wage hike of 11.4 percent over three years, a 10 percent cash bonus, and continued company payment of full health-insurance premiums. Many SPEEA members doubted if they could fare as well in their own contract, which intensified discussion of the benefits of joining a larger labor organization.

The issue came to a head on October 13, 1999, when more than 4,000 SPEEA members cast ballots on whether or not to rename their organization the "Society of Professional Engineering Employees" and become Local 2001 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, AFL-CIO. A remarkable 80 percent majority (3,462 votes to 883) voted yes, and the "new" SPEEA became a real union at last.

"No Nerds, No Birds"

In the first display of their new militancy, SPEEA members rejected Boeing's contract offer on December 1, 1999. After a federal mediator failed to resolve differences, SPEEA struck on February 9, 2000. Their rallying cry was "No Nerds, No Birds!"

If Boeing expected SPEEA to fold quickly, its management seriously miscalculated the union's internal solidarity. Of 22,000 employees in SPEEA's bargaining group, more than 17,000 walked off the job -- and stayed off. Plane deliveries slowed to a trickle, research projects had to be suspended, and the company's stock plummeted.

Boeing blinked first, and retreated from its main demand for employee payment of part of health insurance. Mediators brought negotiators back to the table for an all-night discussion that hammered out a tentative agreement on March 17, 2000. After 40 days on the picket line, 70 percent of the 9,600 voting SPEEA members ratified the new three-year contract on March 19, 2000.


SPEEA archives; The Seattle Times, October 14, 1999; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 18 and 20, 2000.

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