Union-busting culture at Boeing

Lives and livelihoods sacrificed to the bottom line

Boeing test pilots in flight simulator, the last safety test a new model of plane gets before delivery to commercial airlines.
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Boeing, Washington state’s top employer, was also the world’s largest airplane manufacturer not long ago. In 2018, its bottom line soared past $10 billion. Then, two separate crashes of Boeing’s new 737 MAX killed 346 people over a five-month period ending in March 2019. The plane was grounded worldwide and Boeing recorded its first loss in more than 20 years. The company quickly blamed pilots and aerospace workers for the disasters. In fact, both crashes were caused by the new Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), designed to avoid stalls in the MAX.

Boeing’s narrative unraveled as leaked texts, whistleblower testimony, and muckraking news articles traced the crashes to a toxic culture of work speedup, cover-ups of defective systems, inadequate training, and more. Worse, Boeing had permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to “self-certify” the safety of the planes they were selling. Less reported is how Boeing’s sacrifice of safety goes hand-in-glove with union-busting, chiefly of unions that represent the workers responsible for safety checks.

Union busting kills. Flight training pilots, who work for Boeing in Seattle, test airplanes to ensure they are safe and to identify problems. In 2012, they joined the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA). In 2016, Boeing promoted a drive to decertify their union. Mark Forkner, the 737 chief technical pilot, and Patrik Gustavsson were prominent in that failed effort.

Since then, Boeing has eliminated half the Seattle pilots’ jobs, transferred their work to Miami, and hired temporary contract pilots to fill job vacancies. Forkner left Boeing in 2018 and Gustavsson was promoted to his position. Last year, frustrated pilots, encouraged by Boeing, circulated another petition to decertify the union.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), controlled by President Trump’s anti-labor appointees, promised a quick vote. That was put on hold as SPEEA appealed, charging Boeing with illegal interference. Boeing had awarded 25 percent pay raises to only those pilots who were not union represented — and promised the same raise to union pilots if they voted to decertify!

News has also surfaced about Forkner’s role in “smoothing over” problems with the MAX. He recommended removal of any mention of the MCAS system from pilot training manuals. This helped Boeing sell more planes by cutting training costs for prospective customers. SPEEA produced documentation that Forkner pushed hard to convince both Lion Air and Indonesian air safety regulators that their pilots didn’t need expensive simulator training on the MAX. Recently disclosed text messages between Forkner and Gustavsson reveal the pressure on pilots to move MAX production along. Forkner also mentions he “lied to the FAA (unknowingly)” about problems with the anti-stall software. Boeing management had access to Forkner’s messages soon after the fatal crashes but withheld them for months.

Boeing engineers were pressured to sacrifice safety to the bottom line. Soon after the second crash, engineer Curtis Ewbank submitted an internal ethics complaint detailing how, in 2014, management blocked safety improvements that might have prevented the crashes. Boeing rejected his suggestions due to “cost and potential (pilot) training impact.” Retired SPEEA staffer Stan Sorscher characterized Boeing’s culture as “going from competing for customers with Airbus based on performance, to competing for investors with Exxon and Apple, based on cost-cutting for short-term shareholder value.”

Silencing the messengers. Over the past decade, Boeing has ramped up its war on unions. In 2009 it opened a production facility for the 787 “Dreamliner” in South Carolina, because the state has the lowest unionization rate in the U.S. at 2.7 percent. When the International Association of Machinists (IAM) began organizing there, anti-labor Governor Nikki Haley led a vicious campaign to defeat the IAM. She is now on Boeing’s board of directors.

In May 2018, in a big win for organized labor in the South, the IAM gained a foothold when flight-line techs voted 104-65 for the union. Boeing fought back, appealing to the NLRB and refusing to negotiate a contract. The NLRB overturned its own regional director and granted Boeing’s appeal. Management fired several union activists on trumped-up safety and conduct issues. Interestingly, some of these workers have reported real problems, including speed up, debris left in planes, and pressure to ignore violations. One fired employee played a pivotal role in catching the presence of gauze in a fuel filter and metal debris inside an engine when it shut down during a test flight. This happened just before the Dreamliner was due for delivery to its first U.S. customer, United Airlines.

At least 30 flight-line workers have been fired or forced out since the union vote. None have been replaced. What keeps the Dreamliners flowing is production speedup and strict times set for each job on the line.

Workers, speaking anonymously to the Charleston Post and Courier, blame shoddy production and safety lapses on “recent changes to the processes, elimination of quality inspections and the rate increase. … The goal is just to get the plane out the door.”

For safety and workers’ rights! A century ago, deadly lapses in safety were revealed in the meatpacking industry by crusading journalists such as Upton Sinclair. Revelations of how factories “self-regulated” brought about fundamental reform.

Today, the story of Boeing’s 737 MAX illustrates the need for systemic change in the airplane manufacturing industry, including strong, independent regulation. Union protection for all industry workers, including a stop to union-busting campaigns, is a matter of life or death for both workers and the public.

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