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Business

New Book Explores Changing Attitudes Among Boeing Workers About The Company

787_pic_6.jpg
Ashley Gross
/
KPLU
Boeing's 787 production line in Everett

The people who build and design airplanes for Boeing in the Puget Sound region have been the focus of a unique, two-decade-long study. A team of professors from the University of Puget Sound has surveyed thousands of Boeing workers to track how the company has transformed over time, and what that’s meant for employees.

Their first book, titled "Turbulence: Boeing and the State of American Workers and Managers," came out in 2010 and documented a decade of dramatic changes for the company’s workforce, including an increased reliance on outsourcing, layoffs and shifts in management styles.

Now, co-authors Leon Grunberg and Sarah Moore have published a follow-up book called "Emerging From Turbulence: Boeing and Stories of the American Workplace Today." Grunberg is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Puget Sound, and Moore is professor of psychology at the university.

In their latest book, they share interviews with three dozen current and retired Boeing workers who were given pseudonyms to allow them to be candid. The book examines differences in attitude between retirees and current workers, and then further analyzes differences in perspectives between employees who have been at the company a long time compared with relatively new hires.

Grunberg said he found that workers who know “the heritage Boeing” have very fond memories of the company and are almost wistful about it.

“There was a very deep identification with the Boeing company in name and a lot of pride in the way the company was a leader in aerospace,” Grunberg said. “That still remained.”

`Bitterness'

At the same time, though, Grunberg and Moore encountered a lot of criticism from the workers they interviewed.

“There’s a lot of bitterness toward the leaders about a lot of decisions they made, specifically the 787 business model, which outsourced so much of the production,” Grunberg said.

In fact, much of that discontent dates back almost 20 years ago, when Boeing purchased its rival, McDonnell Douglas. Some employees have joked that McDonnell Douglas bought Boeing with Boeing’s money, and Grunberg found that the acquisition did bring profound changes to Boeing’s workplace culture.

He said the family atmosphere that employees said existed at the “heritage Boeing” disappeared.

Grunberg said one of the men he interviewed for the book summed up why that acquisition caused so much upheaval.

The McDonnell Douglas executives were “mainly finance guys” who “cut through the Boeing people like a knife through butter,” Grunberg recounted. Boeing people were more die-hard engineers, thinking about how to make cool products, “and these guys were really focused on the bottom line. So they changed the whole ethos of the company.”

The professors did identify different attitudes among new hires – they almost always rated Boeing’s culture more positively than people who had been hired before the merger. They also seemed to be more understanding about the company’s increased focus on the bottom line.

Bottom-Line Focus

As one worker told Grunberg and Moore: “The company’s number one goal is profits. I know it sounds cold, but it’s true. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.”

Still, Grunberg and Moore argue in the book that Boeing is an example of what’s going on broadly among American companies: the “unwinding” of the postwar social contract, which was an implicit understanding that if you worked hard and did a good job, you could count on job security and decent pay and benefits.

Grunberg said he believes that has had negative impacts that are not immediately apparent if you look at Boeing’s record backlog and rising profits. He pointed to the decision to outsource a large portion of the design and production of the 787 Dreamliner, which led to the plane being more than three years late and racking up more than $28 billion in deferred production costs that Boeing spreads out into the future under its program accounting model.

“They thought they were going to reduce risk dramatically,” he said. “So I think that’s a warning about having a short-term mentality.”

And he said another potential problem for Boeing is that if workers are dissatisfied, they won’t be willing to go the extra mile.

“That comes out of a lot of goodwill, and what happens when that goodwill starts to disappear?” Grunberg said. “So I would say that for certain kinds of companies, this kind of bottom-line mentality doesn’t work.”

leon_grunberg_book_interview_edit_longer_version.mp3
An extended version of the interview with Leon Grunberg