Strike Echoes in White-Collar World ; Engineers Picketing in Seattle Point to Unions' Ability to Recruit Information Age Workers

Article excerpt

They're engineers first. They wear white collars, not blue. And walking picket lines in winter - with no strike pay - was never a part of their nature.

Yet here they stand, burning wooden pallets for warmth - a chummy congregation in Eddie Bauer flannels and Rockport casuals, holding their own against one of the world's most powerful companies.

In two weeks, this band of Boeing engineers and technicians has metamorphosed from little more than a voluntary employees club to perhaps the most potent symbol of white-collar solidarity in America today.

Indeed, to some, the struggle between this once-wimpy union and the aerospace giant represents a kind of Rubicon that organized labor is desperate to cross. As job security for even the highest- paid workers is imperiled by corporations' desire to cut costs, the strike has become a crucial indicator of whether or not unions can enfold the type of workers who will drive the economic growth of the next century.

If the strike "is successful, it would be an enormous boost to other white-collar workers," says David Olson, a political scientist at the University of Washington. "It will be a signal that the global-manufacturing companies of the new millennium have a workforce that will organize from the bottom to the top to secure its interests."

Here on the shores of Puget Sound, talks between Boeing and the engineers' union are scheduled to resume today. Nationwide, the strength of the strike is representative of organized labor's attempts to target more white-collar workers as blue-collar jobs move overseas and workers seek jobs in the service and professional sectors.

In 1999, "a significant share of [the 266,000 new union members nationwide] were professional and technical employees," says Helena Jorgensen, an AFL-CIO economist in Washington.

Even unions with powerful blue-collar traditions are today organizing professionals. For example, the United Auto Workers (UAW) has 100,000 members who are white-collar, one-eighth of the union's ranks.

"In our region, 95 percent of those we're organizing are white- collar," says Phil Wheeler, director of a UAW Region that includes New England, New York, and Puerto Rico. "Over 50 percent of membership in [the region] is white-collar."

In recent years, the UAW has organized graphic artists, freelance writers, and graduate students in the University of California system. In addition, the Communication Workers of America has organized software designers at Microsoft, and the Service Employees International Union has signed up disgruntled physicians in California.

"White-collar organizing is at an all-time high," says Julie Kushner, who also works for the UAW in New York. "People are seeking us out, really, as fast as we can organize."

The group of Boeing strikers, known as the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), organized 56 years ago under a different name, but it wasn't until last year that it latched onto the AFL-CIO. …