I don't have to tell most of you what a bloodbath it's been for design engineers out there lately. You can read all about it in our lead news story "Here's Your Pink Slip," (p.33) that reports on recent engineering layoffs that are causing some engineers to leave the field permanently.
Perhaps it's time to consider unionizing.
Although there are no figures on how many of the approximately 750,000 design engineers in the U.S. are union members, it's probably only a small percentage.
The International Federation of Professional Technical Engineers (IFPE) currently has approximately 125,000 members in the U.S. and Canada. The Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) represents 22,300 engineers, technical workers, and other professionals at The Boeing Co. It was formed in the mid-1940s, when aerospace engineers decided to band together to seek competitive salaries and better benefits. Though SPEEA's membership has remained fairly constant over time, it tends to fluctuate with the fortunes of Boeing. In November 1999, for example, a record 2,200 workers joined SPEEA in the middle of tough contract negotiations.
Bill Dugavich, communications director for SPEEA, says that most professional workes do not realize the benefits. "One of the strengths of a union is that it can negotiate on behalf of members to ensure that they receive fair pay and benefits," says Dugavich. For example, in the most recent round of layoffs at the struggling Boeing company, Dugavich says that SPEEA saved the jobs of approximately 2,000 of its members. Furthermore, the union negotiated a six-year contract that guaranteed 8,000 engineers a pay raise, plus an increase in pension benefits. The average salary for engineers at Boeing is $78,375.
Are unions a good idea for engineers? I'm all for considering any strategy that helps keep engineers employed and fairly compensated. On the other hand, unions shouldn't tolerate poor performers or corruption. And firms have a responsibility to negotiate intelligently with unions, avoiding contract commitments that could harm them long term.