When the CEO’s of the Big Three U.S. auto companies flew luxurious corporate jets to Washington D.C. to plead for federal aid, it wasn’t just the public relations blunder of the decade. It was yet another reminder of the stark inequalities that make working Americans feel as if they’re being played for suckers when they work harder and smarter than ever before, but get wage freezes, benefit cuts, and layoff notices for their troubles.
Why can’t the nation’s leading corporations, especially those in serious financial trouble, be just a little more egalitarian? If the gaps in pay and perks between the corner offices and the office cubicles and shop floors were just a little narrower, wouldn’t it improve workers’ morale--and the companies’ esteem among consumers and policymakers?
As it happens, at least one member of Motown’s Big Three--Ford CEO Alan Mulally--should have known better. Before coming to Ford, Mulally headed-up the commercial airline division at Boeing, where he was generally well-regarded by union leaders and rank-and-file workers. Boeing has a tradition of being relatively egalitarian in its employment practices. It is the only leading U.S. company where the professional, technical, and production workers are all represented by unions
Until recently, many of Boeing’s top executives, including Mulally, came from the ranks of the engineers’ union. In keeping with Seattle’s Scandinavian social democratic traditions, Boeing’s top brass lived modestly, sometimes in the same communities as the engineers, technicians, and machinists, and treated employees as colleagues, not underlings. When Boeing’s blue-collar or white-collar unions struck, Boeing executives often visited the picket lines, asking workers what it would take for them to go back.
Even though Boeing makes jets, flying around in corporate ones would have been as alien to them as wearing Gucci loafers. In a story that I tell in my book, Boeing’s Chairman and CEO, T.A. Wilson, took a commercial flight to Washington D.C in 1969 to testify before a congressional committee. Instead of a limousine, Wilson was met at the airport by Geoff Stamper, the son of Boeing’s second-in-command, Mal Stamper. Geoff Stamper was a student at American University, and he drove Wilson into town in a rusted jalopy.
Years later, Stamper became Boeing’s chief negotiator in contract talks with the engineers and technicians, and he told me that their seven-week strike in 2000 was good for the company because, by airing their complaints about micromanagement and penny-pinching, the employees had a healthy catharsis, and top executives learned what was on workers’ minds.
Mulally would do well to call or email Stamper and remind himself how a little humility can endear a company to its employees and the general public. The Big Three should also reread their biographies of the late UAW President Walter Reuther, whose Spartan lifestyle set him apart not only from the auto company executives, but also many leaders of other unions. This week, the current UAW President, Ron Gettelfinger, would have made Reuther proud--he took a US Air Flight to Washington.