Threatened by free trade Engineers need unions too

Workers’ Correspondence

When I started out working as a mechanical engineer a bit over four decades ago, there was a widespread tendency for engineers to regard themselves as a special group above and unrelated to the working class. Many saw themselves as a privileged elite who could expect to be favored and richly rewarded by employers on the basis of their training and credentials. The composition of the occupation was virtually all white, Anglo, and male. Social attitudes tended to be commensurate with this, and unconcealed racism was not uncommon, as well as anti-Semitism, other varieties of ethnic and religious bigotry, and male supremacy. Few wanted to even hear of the idea of a union.

Indeed, some of my classmates in engineering school made no bones about why they were there – they had no respect for engineering itself, but saw it as a fast route to corporate management. They openly expressed their contempt for drafting as manual labor, and some were not above bribing professors and plagiarizing laboratory reports to try to get good grades.

It wasn’t always that one-sided. In the 1930s and ’40s, the Federation of Architects, Engin-eers, Chemists and Technicians (FAECT), affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), worked hard to educate its constituents about their position as exploited workers, and the need for organization. Its leadership included a number of progressive engineers and allied professionals, some of them readers and supporters of the Daily Worker, predecessor of this newspaper. My father was one of them, having an active role in the union. With the onset of McCarthyism, the FAECT was one of the more progressive unions which were destroyed by government persecution.

From the ’60s through the ’90s, my engineering career was entirely in nonunion engineering companies. Engineers find the “benefits” of not having a union include not only low pay in relation to the work produced and skimpy benefits, but also a total lack of any job security, frequent implications of incompetence, often being ordered to do slap-dash rush jobs of shoddy quality, or to perform impossible or professionally irresponsible “miracles,” or to work overtime or postpone vacations on same-day’s notice.

By the 1990s, I found that some of my co-workers were becoming more amenable to the idea of having a union. Other attitudes were also changing. So was the composition of the engineering work force. One change was an increased number of immigrant engineers, especially, though not only, from Asian countries. What they were paid, compared to U.S.-born engineers, I can only guess at.

My present job is in a union shop, and it has made a world of difference. In addition to pay rates, benefits, working conditions and job security, one of the most valuable differences is in respect for our work as competent engineers

Enter the computer. Starting in the early 1980s, computer-assisted drafting (CAD) began to replace manual drafting. Today, little manual drafting remains. CAD is actually not merely “assisted,” but drafting done entirely with computer drafting equipment. In this same period, computers also replaced typewriters for writing specifications, and took over other tasks, such as preparation of construction cost estimates. Today, with the internet and faxes, engineering drawings and specifications can be transmitted instantaneously around the world as easily as through one building. With present and projected “free trade” agreements, it is now possible for drafting, specification-writing, cost-estimating, and even design itself, to be shifted to anywhere in the world where labor can be had at minimum cost. Much of our country’s manufacturing has gone that way in recent years, playing workers of different countries against each other in the often-cited “race to the bottom.” A real possibility now exists for “technology” jobs to go the same way. That is one more reason why the “free trade” agreements must be fought and abolished.

“Workers of the world, unite!” includes those in technology occupations.

– John Morris