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Dispatches: What It's Like to Report on Your Parents' Former Union

News and notes from Pacific Standard staff and contributors.
Inside the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington.

Inside the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington.

Staff writer Francie Diep wrote a piece for our State of the Unions Week that took a look at the different conditions faced by Boeing workers at its unionized plant in Everett, Washington, and the non-unionized plant in South Carolina. You can read that story here. Diep's parents were both members of the union at the Boeing facility in Washington, and this is her story of covering an issue that hit close to home. Read the rest of our State of the Unions coverage here.

I grew up surrounded by Boeing-branded stuff: not just model airplanes, but also countless Boeing pens, Boeing notepads, Boeing first-aid kits, a blue canvas Boeing hammock, and a waffle-maker with a huge Boeing logo printed on its lid. My mom was an electrical engineer at the airplane manufacturer, and my dad, a machinist. Both are retired now. The goodies were all rewards they'd earned as Boeing employees, and union members.

Being a Boeing family in the Seattle-area during the 1990s and 2000s also meant I grew up with frequent strikes, including some of the biggest in company history. My parents seldom talked about either work or politics, so they wouldn't say much about it. They would just be home for long stretches.

My parents immigrated to the United States in their late 20s, as Vietnam War refugees. They had no savings and no proof of the college degrees they had earned there. My dad took on assembly-line jobs to put my mom through school again, so that at least one of them would have a bachelor's. Yet, despite these tough beginnings, by the time I was in junior high, we lived no differently from the middle-class friends I'd made in my small hometown. That reality would have been harder to achieve if my dad earned 38 percent less, as the non-unionized South Carolina Boeing machinists do, compared to those employed in Washington.

When it came time for me to pick a story to report for Pacific Standard's State of Unions Week, I was naturally interested in how Boeing's unions, some of the strongest remaining in America's private sector, were doing. It had been about a year since Boeing's South Carolina plants voted not to unionize, in a decision that had been declared a sign of how organized labor would fare in the Trump era.

I was surprised by the prevalence and vehemence of anti-union rhetoric in the public discourse, but it turns out I shouldn't have been. In a detailed survey of more than 3,000 union members at Boeing's Everett plant, conducted in 2013, sociologist Leon Grunberg found that younger generations tended to have a more negative view of unions even though they were members. Indeed, the more strongly these union-member Millennials identified with individualistic statements—checking boxes on the survey that said things like, "I rely on myself most of the time. I rarely rely on others"—the more likely they were to view unions poorly.

My parents' pensions, for which their organizations fought especially hard, mean that I don't have to worry about supporting them financially now. That's made it possible for me to be a journalist, a job for which I had to take less-than-living wages early on. Boeing machinists in Washington state have since lost their traditional pension. My parents' benefits bought their children's futures, one in which unions are far less likely to play a role. And yet, I myself was contributing to the generational decline in union membership.

I tried to report my story fairly, but it was hard not to wish the South Carolina workers had unionized so they could be better compensated and build a life like my parents had. But I understood where one electrician, Melanie Holly Lewis Chen, was coming from when she wavered between wanting better pay and worrying about harming the company if a union came in and asked for too much. "I'd rather keep my job than vote for the union and then you get a lot of money and next thing you know you're laid off," she said.

Maybe the time of my parents and their union is over. Indeed, in the cul-de-sac where I grew up, some of the houses are owned by other Boeing factory-floor workers my parents' age. But the new homeowners are software engineers, working in Seattle's booming technology industry. They're not unionized either.

This dispatch originally appeared in The Lede, the weekly Pacific Standard email newsletter for premium members. The Lede gives premium members greater access to Pacific Standard stories, staff, and contributors in their inbox every week. While helping to support journalism in the public interest, members also receive a print magazine subscription, early access to feature stories, and access to an ad-free version of