Boeing’s Beverly Wyse: Union gets in way of collaborative workforce

Boeing executive Beverly Wyse grew up in a union household. She says times have changed since then.

Beverly Wyse, vice president and general manager of Boeing South Carolina, grew up the daughter of union members.

Today, she’s fighting the International Association of Machinists union’s attempts to organize workers at Boeing Co.’s three production facilities in North Charleston, including the campus where the company makes its twin-aisle Dreamliner commercial airplane.

While her childhood memories of unions are positive, Wyse — who took over Boeing’s top job in North Charleston in January — said “times are different now.”

“It’s a different environment,” she said, adding that the employer abuses that unions fought years ago are no longer problems.

“We’re leading on safety, going well beyond what OSHA or government regulations would require because the company is saying we need to get our injuries to zero,” said Wyse, a 30-year Boeing employee who previously led the company’s 737 program in Washington state. “It’s the company that’s now pushing employee involvement and taking it beyond what we can get in a union environment. Those are things where I think it’s a different world.”

It’s a far cry, she said, from the days when her father, a carpenter, and mother, a grocery store employee, supported organized labor.

“For my dad, the union actually taught him the trade and actually found him work, so he would go from construction job to construction job,” Wyse said. “And the union was the one that was held accountable for the success of his work.”

Wyse said she doesn’t recall any of the pitfalls Boeing now warns its employees about — things like uncertain wage negotiations and the possible loss of a home or car due to a union strike.

“There were times when my dad was out of work between jobs,” she said, “but no specific pros or cons.”

Wyse, who led a union shop when she was in charge of the 737 program, said she simply thinks things can work better now without the IAM’s involvement.

“When you are leading a team in the Puget Sound, there is exactly one way to get where the whole team needs to go, which is by working with the union,” Wyse said. “And I did that with pride and a lot of energy and effort. It worked. It just can be better. There’s a limiting factor there that we don’t need here.”

Wyse last week took time to speak with The Post and Courier about the IAM, the challenges of leading a new team and whether politicians should jump into the middle of a union organizing campaign.

Q: This has been somewhat of a baptism by fire for you to move to a new place, learn the production and get up to speed while at the same time having a union fight. How has the transition been for you personally?

A: Fabulous. Nobody could wish for a better area of the world to come into, when you get this wonderful Southern hospitality because the engagement, whether it’s with a teammate on the floor or when you’re out walking around in Charleston, people just inherently make you feel like, “Hey, this is the best place on earth to be.” If you spend time out in the city or on the beach, as I did over the weekend with my son, you quickly realize they’re probably right.

And as part of that, there has been just a fabulous open dialog with the teams about how proud they are for where they’ve come and clear expectations on areas where they want to see improvement. I always find when a team is direct and engaged and has this list of ideas ... that’s all good, because they come with this expectation that it can be better and they get to be part of the solution. So, you know, when you’re walking into an environment like that, the sky’s your limit because you’re 7,500-plus (employees) strong pulling in the same direction.

Q: How would you describe the difference, if there is one, between the work culture in a place like this opposed to the union culture where you worked in Washington state?

A: Critical to our success is being able to work across functions, getting this strong team environment. So when you take out the artificial boundary that’s “I’m union and you’re not,” you’re going to get a better collaboration. You feel that on the floor, where the production workers feel not only comfortable but ownership about holding the engineers or the materials management people accountable. And because they walked into this environment, it’s not something we’ve had to force or create. It’s stronger here.

Q: Has the difference in opinions among employees over whether they support or oppose a union caused any problems on the production floor?

A: I would say what’s going on right now is a discussion that at times people feel passionate and that comes out in the passion of discussion, but I haven’t seen any disruption. I would put that back to people’s pride in what they’ve accomplished. They are not going to allow that discussion to get in the way of themselves and their teams.

Q: Were you surprised by the timing of the union’s petition?

A: The team here figured that the IAM was going to put their feelers out at some point. When you look at how their membership has dropped so dramatically and, consequently, their revenues have dropped quite dramatically, I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone that they’re going to try at a major site like this that has about 7,500 people. It takes a lot of nerve given what they said about South Carolinians and their ability to manufacture the 787, but I guess not a surprise if you want to have access to the up to $1 million in dues. People will try and bury what they said not that long ago.

Q: What happens on April 23 if the union is successful? How does this place change?

A: That’s not my focus right now, as you can imagine. We’re really focused on today and what’s going on. We’ll answer that question on April 23rd.

Q: What does your gut tell you about what’s going to happen with the union vote?

A: I cannot imagine this workforce, with everything I’ve heard and all their ideas for improvement and their vision as well as ours for the future to continue to expand the site, I cannot imagine they would put a union in their way. I’m not going to predict numbers, but I’ll tell you we are Boeing strong and hand-in-hand with those teammates we have the best future. That’s what I’m hearing.

Q: Has this been a fair union campaign?

A: Fair is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. The thing that concerns me most is when the union guarantees or makes suggestions about what will or will not happen. I get concerned if somebody is building that into their decision-making process and then ends up disappointed on the other end. The fact that there are no guarantees on this until after the vote is made is critical to me. So as long as everybody recognizes that, then I think we’re OK.

Q: Has the union made promises here that it can’t keep?

A: Certainly there have been impressions that overtime will magically go away or that wages and benefits will improve. Those are the things that I think people are creating an impression of and if they’re not creating that impression you have to ask yourself why would you give dues out of your paycheck?

Q: One of the things union officials cite is a lack of respect toward employees by some members of management. Have you seen any of that?

A: I have seen employees express concerns and I would describe them as pockets. And clearly, respect is foundational. It’s a ticket to play. It comes first before anything else. You have to have trust and you have to have respect. In the challenges that we’ve had over the last year, when people were balancing performance and respect, we maybe didn’t have the recipe perfect. And so we’ve got areas where we need to and can absolutely address.

A new site sees challenges like no other. So we’re still coming up that curve, getting people into positions where they play best. And I think that’s part of where the employees feeling comfortable in not only asking for but again demanding “this is what I need” gives us the opportunity to find those issues and deal with them.

Q: Should politicians like Gov. Nikki Haley or North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey be making statements about how they feel about what’s really a private business matter — whether Boeing employees decide to vote for union representation?

A: I personally believe that open dialogue at every level should be allowed. It’s a conversation that the nation needs to have, regardless of which side of the fence you are on. It is the foundation of this country to encourage an open dialog and debate and if our leaders can’t participate in that, that would be unfortunate from my perspective.

Q: Have those statements helped Boeing or do they hurt at some point?

A: I think it depends on how an individual perceives those statements because, in the end, it’s the individual teammates in this case who will get to decide. They have a big decision, because it affects not only them. It affects their families, their community, it affects the company’s competitiveness. It has a far-reaching impact.

Q: Would union representation affect Boeing’s future operations here? Would we see operations moving elsewhere or would expansions that we might have seen not take place?

A: There’s no way to tell. You don’t know what that negotiation is going to ultimately end up being. But I’ll go back to what we’ve seen in parts of the company, and in many parts of country, where if this gets driven into a situation where we’re less competitive, then its not going to be good for anybody.

Q: Do you have a contract with Boeing?

A: No, I don’t. And you know what, I hope the whole South Carolina team takes a lot of comfort in that. If I don’t create a work environment that lets them want to bring their best to this place every day, then I will be somewhere else. The company holds me accountable.

Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_