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Capitalist Family Values: Gender, Work, and Corporate Culture at Boeing

Capitalist Family Values: Gender, Work, and Corporate Culture at Boeing

by Polly Reed Myers


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Though best known for aircraft and aerospace technology, Boeing has invested significant time and money in the construction and promotion of its corporate culture. Boeing's leaders, in keeping with the standard of traditional American social norms, began to promote a workplace culture of a white, heterosexual family model in the 1930s in an attempt to provide a sense of stability for their labor force during a series of enormous political, social, and economic disruptions. For both managers and workers, the construction of a masculine culture solved problems that technological innovation and profit could not. For managers it offered a way to govern employees and check the power of unions. For male employees, it offered a sense of stability that higher wages and the uncertainties of the airline market could not. For scholar Polly Reed Myers, Boeing's corporate culture offers a case study for understanding how labor and the workplace have evolved over the course of the twentieth century and into the present day amid the rise of neoliberal capitalism, globalization, and women's rights.

Capitalist Family Values places the stories of Boeing's women at the center of the company's history, illuminating the policy shifts and economic changes, global events and modern controversies that have defined policy and workplace culture at Boeing. Using archival documents that include company newspapers, interviews, and historic court cases, Capitalist Family Values illustrates the changing concepts of corporate culture and the rhetoric of a "workplace family" in connection with economic, political, and social changes, providing insight into the operations of one of America's most powerful and influential firms.

Polly Reed Myers is a lecturer in history and integrated social sciences at the University of Washington. Her work has appeared in Feminist Studies and Pacific Northwest Quarterly.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803278691
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 09/01/2015
Pages: 284
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Polly Reed Myers is a lecturer in history and integrated social sciences at the University of Washington. Her work has appeared in Feminist Studies and Pacific Northwest Quarterly.

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Capitalist Family Values

Gender, Work, and Corporate Culture at Boeing

By Polly Reed Myers


Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-8080-9


Fraternalism and the Boeing News in the 1930s

The March 1932 issue of Boeing's company publication, the Boeing News, introduced a new feature that offered Boeing employees' "news of interest." Titled "Shop Notes," the section focused on the various shop-floor departments that housed the growing blue-collar, mostly male, workforce. Employees were to report stories and announcements to their shop-floor supervisors, who would in turn report them to the "shop reporter." The newspaper described the section as a way to honor the linkages between the company leaders and managers and the rank-and-file workers: "BOEING NEWS is your paper and we want your news to be published in it." Typical is the December 1937 feature, which reported, among other things, that Alton Reese's wife had given birth to a baby girl; Carl Fields, who was affectionately nicknamed "Grandpapa," had been promoted; and Wayne Thompson had recently purchased a new Ford V-8. Publicly recognizing life experiences as honored "shop traditions" reinforced and celebrated men's role as husbands, fathers, and most of all, company workers. The language of "family" increasingly permeated the Boeing News as the company expanded in the 1930s, but in ways that assumed fraternal bonding between men. This chapter analyzes passages in the Boeing News to show the development of Boeing's corporate culture and the growing pains it experienced throughout the 1930s. Boeing employed the family metaphor to counter the increasing fragmentation of Boeing's workforce in the 1930s amid the challenges posed by the Great Depression, the company's growth, and unionization efforts.

In the 1930s the Boeing "family" became a version of fraternalism that upheld masculine solidarity. As Boeing grew larger and managers assumed greater power, company initiatives like the Boeing News tried to retain the feeling of a "shop-floor" company and to build a company "family" based on fraternal norms and assumptions of masculine solidarity, between workers and management and among workers themselves. Workers were not entirely accepting of the family metaphor and struggled against corporate culture even while adhering to some masculine norms and traditions, especially in union efforts. As Francine Moccio notes, "Fraternity is the very foundation upon which proto-trade unionism was built," and fraternal societies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries "served valuable familial and community functions in an unstable economic environment." Because fraternal organizations were "overwhelmingly male" with "gender solidarity" as the "uniting factor," women have had a difficult time breaking into blue-collar professions and unions coded as male. Fraternalism since the early twentieth century in skilled blue-collar jobs has meant "wiring together formal and informal cultural forms of male bonding and gender solidarity for purposes of organizational efficiency and commercial expansion."

At Boeing, fraternalism offered a way to talk about company and worker solidarity despite the boom-and-bust cycles of the aircraft industry. Unlike earlier forms of familialism, the Boeing "family" was not familial in the sense that Boeing was the father, though a certain degree of paternalism toward women and minority workers did exist. Whereas earlier models of corporate familialism were more focused on benefits and paternalism and corresponded more closely to the patriarchal family structure, disciplinary control at Boeing was exerted less by a paternal authority figure than by a rigid social hierarchy that was enforced daily on the shop floor through workers' interactions with their managers and coworkers. In the pages of newsletters, in hiring and promotion practices, in shop-floor relations, and in Boeing-sponsored social events it was assumed that Boeing workers should identify with one another in terms of race, gender, and sexuality and through a shared masculine work experience and history. Corporate discourse helped to solidify a masculinized work space. Although the Boeing "family" would change in reaction to social and economic challenges, the fraternal expectations that were set in the 1930s, both by the company and by union efforts, had a lasting impact on company culture throughout the twentieth century. Fraternalism helped to build and uphold workplace hierarchies that set the stage for a workplace dominated by white patriarchal heterosexual norms.

The Company Publication as Management Strategy

Company publications like the Boeing News became a routine part of corporate management strategy beginning in the early twentieth century. They emerged in conjunction with paternalistic company-sponsored programs designed to monitor and shape workers' characters. This was a shift from earlier times, when employers had left issues of employee motivation and identification with the company to shop-floor supervisors or to managers. Company publications supported company welfare and personnel management programs by using the family metaphor to rhetorically assign workers an important place within increasingly large corporate bureaucracies. As Roland Marchand argues, "We may justifiably remain skeptical of the power of the family metaphor ... to reshape worker consciousness. But this imagery often functioned in tandem with efforts to decrease worker alienation through humanizing systems of employee representation and paternalistic welfare programs." Corporations also began to institute programs of personnel management beginning in the 1920s.

Like other corporations, Boeing recognized that publicity and public relations were important parts of efforts to maintain a cohesive company "family" amid economic and labor tensions. The institution of the Boeing News was part of a larger company attempt to bolster employee identification and company image and to manage employees. Beginning in 1922 Boeing began publishing the Joystick, which later became the Boeing News. In 1930 Boeing's newly established public relations department began to publish the Boeing News. In 1939 company president P. G. Johnson created the position of public relations manager and hired Harold Mansfield to fill it because he recognized "the increasing significance of public relations." The position was eventually elevated to "vice presidential status." In the first issue of the Boeing News, Johnson noted that the company's growth necessitated a company publication: "It is my belief that the Boeing family has grown sorapidly, our activities are so varied, our personnel so separated, that the time has come when all of us should be kept informed, about what the other groups are doing. That explains the Boeing News." Many company publications emerged after periods of strained relations between labor and management, such as labor strikes. The Boeing News grew alongside union efforts to organize workers. By 1934 the company was facing the challenges brought on by the Great Depression. Workers were ready for union organization and reportedly displayed an "overwhelming opinion in favor of some form of organization."

The Boeing News had wide distribution; in addition to providing it to employees, company leaders gave it to the media, company customers, libraries, and top military personnel. Boeing's plants in Wichita and Canada had their own plant publications. Company leaders were in fact rigorous in making sure that workers received the publication. One former Boeing manager at the Seattle plant recalled, "On publication day stacks of the magazine were placed at the various exit gates where the guards passed them out as they carried on their routine inspection of employees' lunch buckets and parcels at shift change." These distribution methods suggest the presence of some tensions in the Boeing "family" and the imposition of corporate culture on workers, but they also highlight the centrality of corporate culture in the workplace. The Boeing News devoted so much copy to emphasizing the camaraderie, fraternalism, and shared backgrounds of Boeing workers that it would be easy to forget that Boeing leaders were the ones who published and circulated the Boeing News. But the publication reflected the company's growth into a powerful corporation with an increasingly hierarchical structure. By the 1930s the ranks of management at corporations like Boeing began to increase. Corporations gave more power to managers, rather than workers. As Julia Ott points out, even while corporations rhetorically began to tout ideas of a "shareholders' democracy," with employees "owning" a part of the corporation, corporate leaders controlled the distribution of the shares and retained power over the company.

The changes in the "Shop Notes" feature of the Boeing News mirror the growth of the company in the 1930s and increased company efforts to manage unity. Although initially a page in length, the "Shop Notes" feature soon took up several pages and editors changed the name of it to "Personal Notes about Our Personnel." By the early 1940s the feature sometimes ran five or more pages and included information on new plants, departments, and shops. As the company expanded, such sections were needed in order to maintain a sense of familiarity among workers. Company leaders were increasingly removed from the ever-growing shop-floor departments, and, as Boeing grew, it was less likely that employees would know one another or about the functions and dynamics of other shops. The Boeing News also published a small column called "From the Observer's Cockpit" in the early 1930s, but the column on company happenings was short and often focused on news of the military representatives and corporate leaders. In contrast the employee-centered "Shop Notes" and "Personal Notes about Our Personnel" functioned as spaces where company leaders tried to integrate the lives of shop-floor supervisors and employees into corporate culture in a way that would otherwise not have been possible.

In the late 1930s Boeing News editors added "All in the Family," compiled by company leaders to share important company news. A 1939 installment asked workers to consider the link between the Boeing family of workers and the company's technological innovations, conjuring the sense of family to describe the pride workers felt after filling an order for Boeing 314 clippers purchased by Pan American Airways: "Whether or not we had thought of ourselves in exactly that light, undoubtedly it was the 'proud parent' feeling that welled up inside of us the moment the first Clipper said goodby [sic] to home and struck off to make a living in the South Pacific." In addition to promoting high work standards, "All in the Family" messages reinforced a sense of belonging and promoted a vision of the company as stable, inclusionary, and supportive — many of the characteristics one might expect from a family member. Similarly, "Personal Notes" used the language of family and home to describe workplace relations. In 1934, for example, an assembly shop contribution to "Shop Notes" equated the shop floor with the familiarity of hearth and home: "Jack Finney has returned to the fold after an absence of several months. Welcome home!" As discussed below, the language of fraternalism increasingly took center stage in the Boeing News as the company battled the challenges of the Great Depression and witnessed union organization of its workers for the first time.

Labor Tensions, Corporate Confidence, and the Great Depression

Fraternalism became especially important in the 1930s because the company's future seemed uncertain and stability seemed elusive because of the Great Depression. Although the decade started on an optimistic note, the turbulent 1930s affected Boeing's employment levels. Company leaders worked hard to minimize any sense of impending economic doom and to instill a sense of confidence in workers regarding the company's future. The end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s brought significant company-wide development, and Boeing continued to expand despite the Great Depression. In 1928 William Boeing declared that it was time to "build up" engineering and research, so expansion of the Seattle plant included an administration building to accommodate the growing engineering department. Company leaders celebrated a purported stability in a time of economic crisis and stressed Boeing's capabilities in outmaneuvering the economic crisis. The front page of the November 1931 Boeing News, for example, defiantly declared, "Depression? Far from It!"

Employment rose to twelve hundred in 1932 in order to meet army and navy orders (for P-12E pursuit planes and F4B-4 fighters). Those numbers were a far cry from Boeing's employment levels just thirteen years earlier, when the company had employed only sixty-seven people and built furniture in an attempt to survive the downturn. Harold Mansfield, public relations manager and editor of the Boeing News, noted, "Throughout the generally bad business year of 1932, the plant on Duwamish [River] was bustle and hum." The plant did take some steps to try to maintain stable employment levels. In June 1933 the company standardized the work week to five days "as a means of providing maximum employment." Yet in 1931 the Boeing News declared Boeing to be exceptional in the generally bad business climate: "We've forced the depression to give our plant a mighty wide berth. ... Depression? Far from it, indeed!" The publication emphasized the significance of the company to the surrounding region, and in 1934 the Boeing News boasted, "With local expenditures aggregating almost $3,000,000 for the year, our company played an increasingly important part in the affairs of Seattle and the surrounding district during 1933." While most of this figure ($2.5 million) was in salaries and wages, the company also noted the significance of local purchases and expenses.

That optimism, however, had faded considerably by the mid-1930s. Mansfield notes, "That spring of 1934 everything seemed to be going backward. Everything." In 1934 Congress passed antitrust legislation that barred aircraft manufacturers from participating in airmail delivery and airline services. Boeing had been engaged in the airmail business, so after the new law went into effect the company had to reorganize its operations and focus solely on aircraft manufacturing. The forced restructuring had a significant impact on workforce levels. In 1934 Boeing employed 1,738 people, up about 500 from the 1932 total of 1,200. By January 1935, only 613 people were on the company payroll. Out of that number, 73 were engineers, who worked long hours six or seven days per week while designing the Flying Fortress. In 1936 business started picking up again when Boeing began to sell B-17 bombers to the army; employment levels once again rose, with more than 3,000 workers on the job by the beginning of 1939. In the mid-1930s, however, the plant situation was, as Mansfield characterizes it, "critical. ... The plant was operating in the red."

William Boeing was so disgusted with the new federal regulation that he left Boeing and the aviation industry altogether and began to raise horses. People in Seattle and employees alike mourned the departure of Bill Boeing and worried about the impact of the changes on the company and region. A 1934 editorial in the Seattle Times that was reprinted in the Boeing News paid tribute to W. E. Boeing as a pioneer in the aviation industry and a voice announcing displeasure at the intrusion of the federal government into Boeing's business. From the perspective of "Mr. and Mrs. Boeing," the editorial was in the form of an open letter that promised to inform the company's founder about what residents thought of recent events: "Seattle remembers 'Bill' Boeing as a daring experimenter in a new field at a time when men now prominent in government probably were uncertain whether a heavier-than-air machine really could be made to fly." The editorial went on to describe a history of shop-floor togetherness and the significance of the company to the local and regional identity and economy: "The Boeing Company started with three men in a building that wouldn't house one of its minor departments now. ... Today, his is the biggest industry and the largest payroll in Seattle. ... Seattle has reason to feel proud of 'Bill' Boeing; so has the United States." In the absence of Bill Boeing, company leaders focused on trying to build a company that retained a sense of camaraderie and continued to grow despite the bad economic climate and the new rules of operation.


Excerpted from Capitalist Family Values by Polly Reed Myers. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations    
Preface: Finding Women at Boeing    
Introduction: The Boeing Family    
Chapter 1: Fraternalism and the Boeing News in the 1930s    
Chapter 2: Manpower versus Womanpower during World War II    
Chapter 3: Women’s Place in Equal Opportunity Employment    
Chapter 4: Jane Doe v. Boeing Company    
Chapter 5: Employing Teamwork    
Conclusion: Corporate Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century    



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