The Boeing Retiree Who Knows That the Manufacturing Industry Has Changed Forever

Photo: Maksym Dragunov/Getty Images

Steve Dow, 60
Aerospace assembly-line worker
Covington, WA

I worked for 30 years at multiple plants for the Boeing Company. I can’t say that enjoyed it every day because the job is steeped in drudgery, but they took care of me and my family. I have nothing bad to say about them.

There was about three or four other veterans hired at the same time I was. Basically, they were filling the quota. That was for the wire-bundling shop.

I was spooling wires for the Minuteman missile. I remember, one guy was showing me how to do it. He said, “I can do one in about an hour but I’ll never tell them that.” It’s still my first day down here and I thought, Wait a second. The idea is that they pay you and you show up and you do it as fast as you can.

We had these big power cables, and you had to twist them into pairs, then put six wires into a bundle. And each wire is as big in diameter as a Tootsie Roll. It’s heavy stuff. And it was a hundred feet long. There was no way to twist three twisted pairs together and make it look like anything less than a mess. And then you’d have to put a plastic sleeve over it. So you got about five of us on the end, you got a long air tube and a winch dragging this cable through it. I was in there about 15 years.

I moved out of the wire shop into injection molding. I enjoyed injection molding. They would give us the mold and we’d go to the books and figure out what material, what temperature range, what degree of pressure was right and figure out how to get a good part out of these molds. We’d make a good, reliable repeatable process, and then we would take the mold to wherever, all over the world.

I also worked on the 747. I would kit the parts for attaching the wings. The airplane is divided into assemblies and sub-assemblies. So the job is in the warehouse, picking the kits and putting them together. The little spec sheet says you need two of these and this is the location. You go to the location and grab two of those and you might put them in a baggie and then you put those in that kit. Then it needs four of these screws. You get four screws, put them in a bag, put a label on it, put it in your kit.

There were heavy metal brackets at different angles. There was a whole lot of specialized nuts and bolts. That kit, the rack it went on was six-foot high, ten-foot long, three-foot wide. Maybe for a control panel somewhere your kit would fit in the palm of your hand.

One time I picked 300-something kits in three weeks. This union rep working beside me picked 30 in the same time frame. He made zero errors. The general gave him an award for making no errors. I had to stay quiet. I was really angry. What I should have said is, “Two picks a day is acceptable?” I can do that in about 20 minutes and then go outside and smoke all day.

Let me tell you something about those airplanes. All that interior stuff has to be just right. I worked on the window frames, the shades and all these doors for your luggage and all these fancy little pieces like the armrest. One time we sent some people to the flight line where they’re assembling all these things and come to find out they’re sawing up the parts. Here we went to all this effort to make each part exactly this way and the guys installing them are sawing sections out of them because they don’t fit. Nobody even bothered to say anything. They were just so busy they didn’t have no time to bark. They are pressured. And at Boeing, changing the drawing was truly difficult because you had to have so many people sign off on it. There’s just a lot of jobs like that where you have no time go to your manager and say, we have a problem to fix. I don’t think it’s simple at any company.

I was laid off twice. Once I was out of work for a year. I hate to get political about this, but sometimes the layoffs were just so that they could change the price of the stock so that some CEO could get his stock options. That was the rumor anyway. I was just the guy twisting the wires there. I don’t know about stock options.

If you go to Boeing and you’re a good worker and you get a reputation for that, people will look out for you. If you get laid off, they will usually offer you a job back when they get a chance. I had a reputation of being a good worker. Still. Even when I was there, I went and got a real-estate license, just to have something to fall back on. A couple years later I got an insurance license. I was always trying to back myself up just to be safe because I knew sometimes they would lay you off.

I’m pro union but I’m anti union at the same time. We had a good medical plan, a good retirement plan. The bad thing is there was time of fighting and struggles. We went on strike once just because people were tired. We were working 12-hour days mandatory and 8 hours on weekends. The union wanted to go on strike because they thought they had the company in a spot. A lot of people voted for the contract. I asked some of the guys and it was just because they were worn out. I didn’t want to go out for two months just to get 50 cents an hour more or a buck an hour more.

Boeing got really pissed off and they really accelerated off-site manufacturing to other countries. The union guys did it to themselves. A lot of people can’t see three feet in front of them or two years down the road. It did not dawn on them that if you bite the hand that feeds you, that hand is going to take your job and give to it to someone who will do it for less. Anybody can read a drawing. A Chinese guy can learn English and can read the English drawing or they can just make the drawing in Chinese for him. Same for the Japanese guy or the guy in Malaysia or the guy in Italy, the guy in Germany.

I don’t care what anybody tells me, you can’t force 50,000 companies to keep all their manufacturing here or bring those jobs back because they’re not going to pay 15, 20, 35 dollars an hour when they can have the same thing done for a buck an hour in some other country. I was making 37 bucks an hour. If you saw what I did, you’d be absolutely livid, because I can take a 14-year-old kid off the street, show him my job in ten minutes, for 37 bucks.

This is not just a Boeing thing. This is every firm in the United States that’s done this. They’ve offloaded assembly to other countries where they can get labor cheaper. Are they exploiting cheap labor in other countries where people are starving, or are we giving them opportunity? I guess you decide based on what your feelings are. It’s not good if you’re an American manufacturing worker. To choose that kind of career nowadays, you’re putting yourself in harm’s way. Companies have a hard time competing on a global scale if they’re going to pay 25, 30 bucks an hour to guys who make widgets.

The one thing about Boeing that is really good now — and it started way back when I was there — we had all kinds of “off hour” training. You could see what training was required for the jobs listed and get it. You want to go to a company and work your way up the ladder, at least most people do, and make something of yourself, and with Boeing they’ll show you exactly how to do that.

I was late getting my 401(k), but once I understood it, I did really well with it. When I was in my wire shop, there was a guy that retired and he told me, he says, “The biggest mistake I ever did is not getting into the 401(k).” It was his attitude the rich people were responsible for every problem in the world and so he didn’t want anything to do with it. Well, the lady who hired him had half a million dollars in her pocket when she retired. So, he looked at that and he just realized he had really made a mistake. That’s a big problem in this country. They should teach everybody about this stuff when they’re in high school. I don’t know, maybe Wall Street doesn’t want people to understand that.

I retired four years ago. My wife was dying of cancer. I was angry about many things. I was so frustrated because I couldn’t do the things that I wanted to do that I thought would make us more profitable. I didn’t get any backup from management. They didn’t see the point. I actually had a supervisor who thought if I made it too efficient he’d have to lay some of us off.

There was a retirement party. Retirement parties are where all kinds of goodies are brought, potlucks and stuff. I said I don’t need anything. I wouldn’t eat any of it. If I know what kind of work you do, I don’t want to eat nothing you cooked. That was my attitude. I bring my lunch. You guys eat your potluck and enjoy.

I’m extremely positive about Boeing. They laid me off a couple times, but they always took good care of me and my family. Now they’re taking care of me in retirement. You know, I live the American dream. That used to be, you go and work for a company for a lifetime, you retire, and you’re good. I actually did that, and I’m pretty happy.

The Boeing Retiree Who Knows That Manufacturing Has Changed