Engineers and Unions

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Engineers and Unions

by Larry Garner

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 6, No. 6, November 1974, p. 23 – 27


Unionization of engineers received its greatest impetus not during the Depression years but during the war years (1943-45). That is to say, it was not so much economic deprivation which led to large-scale unionization, but rather the monumental change brought about by their employment on a mass basis in large war plants. The image the engineer had of himself [herself] as something approaching a “free professional” was inexorably deflated by the reality of having to punch in at the time clock. Much of the unionizing effort was aimed, however, at recouping the loss of professional status and recognition entailed by this change. In many instances, engineering unions were formed during the post-war years in order to prevent the inclusion of engineers in bargaining units dominated by “non-professional” employees. On the other hand, the gains won by production workers through union action were often the catalyst that spurred on engineers to organize (in part, in order to maintain the wage differential between the two groups). Despite these features of engineers’ unionization which makes it appear a purely defensive maneuver (to define and protect their distinct professional status), basic structural transformations in industrial work processes were moving engineers in the direction of unionization. First of all, work was increasingly organized by groups or teams of engineers, so that the concept of rewarding individuals for their personal achievements had less and less real meaning. Second, the pressure to specialize ever more narrowly left the engineer open to the possibility of being pigeon-holed in a slot which, with a change in technology, would make his specialization obsolete. Third, job insecurity became a built-in characteristic of the engineer’s work by virtue of the fact that their employment on a mass scale was premised on the continued existence of government contracts.1

In 1947, as a result of heavy lobbying by professional engineering societies, the Taft-Hartley Act was amended (section 9 b 1) to allow engineers to exclude themselves from bargaining units dominated by “non-professional” employees, unless a majority of “professionals” decided they wished to be included. For purposes of the NLRB a professional was defined as ”one whose work is predominantly intellectual and varied in character, involving consistent exercise of discretion and judgment, incapable of standardization, and requiring advanced scientific judgment. “2

In spite of the Taft-Hartley law the movement towards unionization continued.

In 1952 a national engineering union was founded, Engineers and Scientists of America. ESA was more of a central clearing-house for an exchange of ideas than a national union with the power to call a national strike. Its main objectives were to participate in the process of accreditation of engineering schools, to promote the licensing of engineers, and to encourage engineering education.3 It also kept statistics on the growth of unionization among engineers. It estimated that by 1957 there were about 55,000 engineers represented by collective bargaining units out of 500,000 engineers working in the country (this compared with over 70% in a country like Sweden); of these 55,000, 20,000 were actual members of ESA.4

From its inception ESA was split into two groups: “One essentially wanted to form a national labor union for engineers; the other wanted to form an engineering professional society that would sequester the collective bargaining franchises and place them in cold storage.”5 This divergence came out when ESA had to confront the question of mixed unions (i.e. those which included technical and/or production workers in addition to engineers). This was a decisive question for many engineers and tested the mettle of their class consciousness. At a time when the engineer’s distinct professional identity was being threatened by technical developments requiring a diminished use of “professional skills,” the inclusion of technical workers in engineering locals aroused the fear that the engineer’s status might become indistinguishable from that of the blue-collar worker.6 The mixed unions did in fact display a higher level of trade-union consciousness than the homogeneous units. Whereas the latter emphasized the use of tactics such as, legislative lobbying and public relations, the mixed. unions were more inclined to engage in picketing, to call a strike, to adopt a union shop, and to call for higher dues and expenditures for organizing drives.7 The issue came to the fore when the mixed unions attempted to affiliate ESA with the AFL-CIO. When this attempt failed, major locals (Minneapolis-Honeywell, Sperry Gyroscope, and Western Electric, among others) broke away from ESA and sought to establish a connection with larger labor organizations at the local level (Minneapolis-Honeywell with UA W and Sperry Gyroscope with the IUE). The schism debilitated the national organization to the point where it dissolved in 1960. Soon thereafter decertification of the unions at such major sites as Western Electric, Minneapolis-Honeywell, and Sperry Gyroscope took place as a result of NLRB elections; a majority of the engineers elected to withdraw from the collective bargaining unit. By 1967 the number of engineers represented by unions in collective bargaining had declined to 45,000 and the number of union members had remained constant at 20,000 while the number of engineers working had increased to over 800,000.8

Opposition to Unionization

The main source of organized opposition to engineers’ unionization has been the management-dominated National Society of Professional Engineers. This organization has been the primary vehicle for promoting the proposition that union membership is “inconsistent with professionalism.” It has argued that the “regimentation” and “standardization” inherent in unionization are incompatible with the professional’s sense of individual judgment and responsibility in his work. As a professional, the engineer recognizes the duty to maintain the highest standards in his work — a sense of duty which is buttressed by a system which rewards him on the basis of his demonstrated individual merit. As a union member, the engineer’s personal relationship with management would be replaced by a system of impersonal rankings and classifications, and only those engineers who follow the lowest common denominator in their work would stand to benefit. Furthermore, collective bargaining would break down the internal unity of the profession, since supervisory engineers would no longer be able to evaluate their subordinate colleagues in a nonadversary posture.9 The NSPE prefers “sounding boards” . to unions; these labor-management councils would enable both parties to discuss differences in a professional manner, free of the stridency of union tactics. The longterm approach to improving the engineer’s economic status lies in fostering professional societies which seek to “raise professional qualifications” and to win greater recognition of engineers’ services from the community; i.e. the engineers really need “something like the AMA,” as if they too were independent entrepreneurs. neurs.

Even without the organized opposition of the NSPE and other professional organizations engineers as a group tend to have taken a heavy dosage of”rugged individualism” that disinclines them from collective action. Engineering schools instill in them an identification with the aims and purposes of management; they imbue them with a pride in individual achievement and reward that overlooks the collective supports which are the premise for individual creativity. Engineers generally fear that unionization would mean that salaries and promotions would no longer reflect individual achievements; and the feeling is wide-spread that “the mediocre people want them (the unions).”10 One opinion survey conducted in 1965 showed, for example, that 71% of the responding engineers rejected the argument that the need for a union was dictated by the reality of employment on a mass scale; 73% agreed that unions discourage individual achievement; 76% agreed that unions were inconsistent with professionalism.11

In addition, the great expansion in government expenditures in space research and weapons systems during the late fifties and sixties created labor market conditions for engineers which were highly conducive to individual bargaining. From 1953 to 1960, for example, engineers enjoyed a 48% increase in median annual income, much higher than for males in any other occupa-tion.12 Rugged individualism seemed to pay.

Characteristics of Engineering Unions

Engineering unions have tried to counter the argument that there is a fundamental conflict between the principles of professionalism and unions by stressing differences rather than solidarity between workers. The contracts negotiated by engineering unions include terms which reflect the professional status engineers believe they have a title to: employer payment of professional dues; paid time-off to attend professional meetings and university lectures and to read professional literature; tuition refunds; leaves of absence for educational purposes.13 Engineering unions intend to prove that their members are not “just another employee group.” Much of the individualistic ethos of the ideology of professionalism also finds its way into engineering contracts in order to make this point. Contracts often stipulate the maintenance of certain qualifications in order to be able to perform particular tasks (“job standards”), thereby excluding those without “professional training”; usually no attempt is made to standardize pay rates, but only to ensure that individual merit is properly rewarded; telescoping of pay differentials (lessening the spread between the higher and lower grades) is generally opposed; seniority as a basis of promotion is also opposed, although it may be adopted as one of the factors in determining the layoff schedule; the union shop is opposed on the grounds that membership should be voluntary among professionals; percentage pay raises are preferred to “blanket” increases; patent rights of individual engineers are made a matter for negotiation; pay demands focus on increasing the merit pool and moving up the top salaries, not the bottom ones, on the assumption that the shopworkers will see to it that the bottom is pushed up.14

Despite the unions’ support for the principle of individual rewards and merit ratings, a number of their other actions generally work to undercut this commitment. Engineering unions which are active bring “order, stability, and regularity to wage, job and personnel policy.” They attempt to establish “demonstrable and reasonable criteria” to serve as standardized guidelines for promotions and merit increases, and they publish data on individual salaries and the average merit increase. To bring all of this out into the open tends to have a levelling, equalizing effect on salaries and promotions, since levelling is the easiest way to avoid the appearances of arbitrariness.15

Much of the power of attraction of engineering unions lies not so much in their economic power (its power to exact concessions from management) as in the services they provide their members (annual salary survey according to grade and length of service; grievance-arbitration process). A walk-out by engineers has limited short-term effect on the production process in most plants. This means that they are in a position the force management’s hand only when their picket lines are respected by blue-collar workers. In most cases, however, the production workers’ unions have demanded the affiliation of the local engineering union with the production workers’ local in exchange for such support; and in most cases, the engineers have rejected, for “professional reasons,” the idea (although during the fifties an engineering strike at Arma achieved success because the engineers pledged affiliation of the Engineering Association of Arma with the IUE in return for support at the picket lines).16

Characteristics of Union Membership

Union membership does not appear to have anything to do with the social background of engineers (their class origins and education, whether their father was a union man or not), nor with their general political orientation (liberal or conservative political attitudes). Rather, it corresponds most closely with the engineer’s degree of dissatisfaction with his work environment (intrinsic aspects of the job assignment; extrinsic rewards such as salary and prestige; treatment by supervisors; adequacy of equipment such as laboratory facilities).17 Another study has shown that the more militant engineering unions have a high percentage of their members engaged in routine, repetitive work and that a substantial percentage of these members possess a degree from a night school or have no degree at all.18 Length of tenure on the job also appears to be an important factor. This is to be explained by the fact that in the engineering field salaries level off considerably after the first 5 to 8 years and that one’s job opportunities are limited by the narrow specialization encouraged by the firm (a specialization that also threatens to make one’s knowledge and training obsolete with changing technology).19 Thus, receptiveness to the notion of joining a union appears to be linked to phenomena which are generally associated with the “proletarianization” of technical workers.

Professionalism and Unionism

Nonetheless it could be argued that there is more to professionalism than the ideology of professionalism disseminated by management. Professionalism also contains the germ of a sense of collective identity and consciousness which has nothing to do with its ideological form the principles of rugged individualism applied to management/employee relations on a mass scale. The collective sensibility implied in the idea of membership in a profession pertains to notions about the most productive use of one’s distinctive creative energies (or labor power). They entail a desire for autonomy: “the right to decide how [one’s] function is to be performed and to be free from restrictions by non-professionals.”20 One’s professional identity in this sense is often in conflict with the ends of management and capital. There are several cases to illustrate this.21

In 1970, Carl W. Houston, an engineer employed by Stone and Webster, was assigned to supervise welding at the construction of a nuclear power plant in Virginia. From his first day at the site, Houston noticed many defects in the welding of steel pipes which were designed to carry cooling water to and from the nuclear reactor. He pointed out to his employer that these defects were potentially dangerous. Loss of water through a break in the pipes would cause rapid overheating of the reactor, accumulation of radioactive materials, and their release into the neighborhood of the plant through steam explosions. Houston repeatedly tried to warn Stone and Webster in Boston of this situation. But his efforts were in vain. After only two months on the job, in April 1970, Houston resigned after he was told by a Stone and Webster welding inspector that he was to be fired for “lack of experience in welding,” a charge Houston found hard to take seriously, since he had been a journeyman welder for twenty-four years and his engineering experience was mostly in welding. As of early 1972, he had been unable to find another job, and his court suit against Stone and Webster was floundering for lack of funds. He believed himself the victim of a blacklist.

Or consider another example. In 1966 Charles Pettis was assigned by his employer, Brown and Root Overseas. to be resident engineer on a $47 million U.S.-financed road building project in Peru. Shortly after arriving in Peru, Pettis suspected serious problems in the engineering design and discovered that adequate geological borings had not been taken. He predicted serious rockslides and pointed out that the Peruvian government would have to bear the cost. In spite of his objections, however, the contractor, Morrison-Knudsen, proceeded with construction. Almost immediately afterwards, the rockslides did occur, causing 31 deaths. Morrison-Knudsen then asked Pettis to charge the cost of removing the slides to the Peruvian government. Pettis refused to do so, claiming that the slides could have been avoided and did not appear in the original contract. After two years of conflict between Brown and Root, Morrison-Knudsen and the American Consul on the one side and Pettis and the Peruvian government on the other, Peru finally terminated the contract and Brown and Root fired Pettis. Like Houston, he has been unable to find work since (as of early 1972). He received many job offers, but the offer was always withdrawn after the new employer reviewed his job references. He sought but received no help at all from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Here are two engineers, experienced professional men, who held the public interest above the narrow interests of their employers. Both were fired; both were probably blacklisted. Houston’s professional integrity was of no consequence to his professional society, the ASCE, which like the other professional societies is apparently employer-dominated. Would union representation have preserved the jobs of these two engineers? Very likely it would have. Most union contracts prohibit firing without “just cause.” With a good union contract, neither one of these men could have been fired without due process and a fair hearing before an impartial arbitrator. And with a strong union organization, the case might not even have gotten that far. Here are two more case histories, taken from the same book as those above, but both concerning blue-collar workers who were union members.

In 1966 Edward Gregory was a quality control inspector in a GM Fisher Body plant in St. Louis. He discovered a defect in the welding of Chevrolet rearquarter panels which could permit exhaust fumes to leak into the car. He repeatedly pointed out the defect to his superiors and later to executives at the plant, but all to no avail. He only succeeded in being transferred to another department where his protests were less effective. It wasn’t until three years later, after at least four motorists had been asphyxiated in their Chevrolets, that General Motors finally recognized the defect and recalled 2.4 million automobiles for repair of the rearquarter panels. Once, when Gregory was subpoenaed as a witness in a trial involving the defective cars, he found himself terminated upon his return to work. Through the intervention of his union, the United Auto Workers, he regained his job back immediately, as well as back pay for the time lost in court. He also used the union grievance procedure to try to reverse his involuntary transfer and recently won the case in arbitration. The arbitrator awarded him his old inspector’s job back.

Gilbert Pugliese is a steelworker at the Jones and Laughlin plant in Oeveland. On July 14, 1971, Pugliese was ordered to pump oil into the Cuyahoga River, already descn”bed by the City of Cleveland as a “fire hazard.” Pugliese refused, and was given a five-day suspension with discharge likely to follow. His nearest union representative, the assistant chief grievance official, was unwilling to help. But his fellow workers threatened a walkout unless Pugliese was hired back, and the chief grievance official then stepped into the case. Two days later, Pugliese was reinstated with back pay. He found that J & L was now using drums to dispose of the oil — which was the same solution he himself had recommended.


The interplay between tendencies moving in the direction of greater worker initiative and greater “proletarianization” is perhaps the key element for gauging the union movement among technical workers. The working class is still far from being homogeneous in its work conditions, and unions must take a differentiated approach to technical workers if they are to meet with success. The approach should take into account at least the following differences in work conditions among technical workers: (1) workers in repetitive, fragmented jobs with regulated rhythms (so many operations per unit of time); (2) workers with margins or discretion in their work within the framework of subordinate tasks which no organizing or rule-making power; (3) workers with innovative functions (new products, new technology, new information systems) who have a large measure of discretion within a narrowly defined field of action, both in substantive and methodological terms; (4) workers in management functions with large margins of discretion within narrowly defined tasks and fields of competence (here the standards of efficiency are not technical-professional but those of the ends set by the firm); (5) researchers with non-repetitive tasks but highly fragmented and specialized, lacking autonomy in the choice of their activity and often subordinated to hierarchical structure of authority. The demands of the workers are likely to differ according to where the workers are situated along this continuum of “proletarianization.”


American Society of Mechanical Engineers (A.S.M. E.) Excludes Employee Engineers from Policy Posts

A clue to A.S.M.E.’s lack of concern for the great body of employee engineers may be found in the Summer ’74 “ASME Executive News Letter”. This lists the individuals whom ASME’s Nominating Committee has nominated for President and Vice Presidents of the organization. (Usually, nomination is tantamount to election).

President — one-year term:
Charles L Tutt, Jr., Dean of Academic Affairs, General Motors Institute, Flint, Mich.

Vice Presidents — two-year terms:
Robert A. Baker, Executive Vice President, Public Service Electric & Gas Co., Newark, N.J. Region III

Kenneth T. Knight, Partner, Olsen Assocs., Engineers & Architects, Raleigh, N.C. Region IV

John E. Harder, Advisory Engineer, Westinghouse Electric Corp., Bloomington, Indiana Region VI

Arthur J. Clark, Jr. Manager, Systems Environmental Testing Dept., Sandia Corp., Alburquerque, N .M. Region VIII

J. George H. Thompson, Prof. & Head, Machine Design Section, Mech. Engrg. Dept., Texas A&M Univ., College Station, Texas Region X

Robert J. E. Roberts, President, Fred T. Roberts & Co., Wilton, Conn. Professional Affairs

Duncan R. McLeish, Manager, Plant Engrg. & Maint., Kentucky Avenue Plant, Eli Lilly & Co., Indianapolis, Indiana General Engineering Department

Earle C. Miller, Manager Client Services & Assoc., Chas. T. Main, Inc., Boston Mass. Power Department

Stothe P. Kezios, Prof.·& Director, School of Mech. Engrg., Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Ga. Communications

Serge Gratch, Director, Chemical Sciences Lab, Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich. Research

In addition to these nominations, the National Nominating Committee reccommended and Council appointed Raymond J. Page, Director, Continuing Engineering Education, General Motors Institute, Flint, Michigan to serve as Vice President for Region V, commencing June 1974, a vacancy created as the result of the resignation of Norman R. Johanson.

Not a single employee engineer is named; the great mass of working engineers remain completely unrepresented against management’s solid front. Also, only one name is listed for each post. As a result, the A.S.M.E. voter may choose only between the single management nominee listed and sitting on his hands…

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  1. See Joel Seidman, “Engineering Unionism,” in The Engineers and the Social System, ed. by R. Perrucci and Joel Gerstl, (New York: Wiley and Sons, Inc.,1969), pp. 222, 227-28; Jack F. Culley, A Primer on Engineering Unionization, (Bureau of Labor and Management Publication: June, 1959), passim.
  2. Cited by Seidman, p. 227.
  3. George Strauss, “Professional or Employee-Oriented: Dilemma for Engineering Unions,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review, XVII (July, 1964), p. 532.
  4. Culley, op. cit., p. 4.
  5. ESA official cited by Strauss, “art. cit.,” p. 525.
  6. Ibid., pp. 526-527.
  7. Seidman, “Engineering Unionism,” pp. 241ff.
  8. Archie Kleingartner, “Professionalism and Engineering Unionism,” Industrial Relations, VIII (May, 1969), p. 225.
  9. Kleingartner, “Professionalism and Engineering Unionism,” p. 226; William Kornhauser, Scientists in Industry (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1962), p. 110.
  10. Cited by Kornhauser, op. cit., p. 109.
  11. Opinion Research Corp., cited by Seidman, “Engineering Unionism,” p. 227.
  12. Cited in Eldon J. Dvorak, “Will Engineers Unionize?” Industrial Relations, II (May, 1963), p. 61.
  13. Kornhauser, op. cit., p. 105; Strauss, “Professional or Employee Oriented,” p. 528.
  14. Seidman, “Engineering Unionism,” pp.238-240; Kornhauser op. cit., p. 110.
  15. James W. Kuhn, “Success and Failure in Organizing Professional Engineers,” Proceedings of 16th Annual Meeting of the Industrial Relations Research Association, December, 1963, pp. 12-13; Strauss, “Professional or Employee-Oriented,” p. 532.
  16. Seidman, “Engineering Unionism,” p. 230.
  17. Bernard Goldstein and B.P. lndik, “Unionism as a Social Choice: The Engineers’ Case,” Monthly Labor Review, April, 1963, pp. 365-69.
  18. Strauss, “Professional or Employee-Oriented,” p. 526.
  19. Kuhn, “Success or Failure,” p. 10.
  20. Strauss, “Professional or Employee-Oriented,” p. 523.
  21. This example and the two following ones were taken from an article by Gary Berenson, “Engineering and Unionism,” (Spark, Vol. 3, No. 2).