Through the Greener Lens
Labor advocate Ray Goforth ’95 draws upon his Evergreen education to advance the interests of his union’s members.
by Carolyn Shea
Last November, in the wake of Washington voters approving Referendum 74, the state’s marriage equality law, the union representing 23,000 Boeing engineers and technical workers brought up the issue of extending the survivor pension benefits afforded to heterosexual spouses to same-sex couples during contract negotiations.
Organizing professionals is an important part of organizing the resurgence of labor.
Having long sought equal benefits for same-sex domestic partners without success, the Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), modified the request to apply to wedded union members. Boeing rejected the proposal, says Ray Goforth ‘95, SPEEA’s executive director and the lead negotiator at the bargaining table. “Their answer was that they had no intention of granting pension survivor benefits to gay spouses because they didn’t have to. They said, ‘We’ve talked to our lawyers, who said pensions are governed by federal law, which doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages, so we’re not bound by the state law.’”
SPEEA promptly issued a press release about Boeing’s stance. It went viral. The Stranger, Seattle’s alternative weekly, picked up the news first, criticizing the company and quoting Goforth as saying, “We are profoundly disappointed to see that they would use a loophole to engage in institutionalized discrimination.”
Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central’s faux conservative pundit, jumped on the bandwagon during his TV show, The Colbert Report, lampooning Boeing for “its refreshing denial of human dignity.”
An online Change.org petition launched by a SPEEA member flooded Boeing CEO Jim McNerney with signatures from more than 79,000 supporters urging him “to do the right thing and stand strongly for equality.” SPEEA’s appeal also drew endorsements from other unions, community groups and elected officials, including the Association of Flight Attendants, United Food & Commercial Workers, Equal Rights Washington, and four members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
In January, SPEAA released a statement saying, “While still locked in contract negotiations for 23,000 engineers and technical workers, Boeing and SPEEA have tentatively agreed on contract language that grants same-sex couples the same pension survivor benefits that have been available to heterosexual married couples.”
By March, after nearly a year of contentious negotiations and several rejected offers, both the professional and technical bargaining units of the union had separately ratified a new four-year contract with the aerospace giant. And the company had agreed to the following language: “Recognizing Boeing’s commitment to equality without regard to sexual orientation, Boeing will extend pension survivor benefits to all spouses, as defined under either State or Federal Law whichever defines the same sex person as a spouse.”
Thanks to collective action, fairness prevailed and the company yielded. “In the court of public opinion, Boeing lost,” says Goforth. “We could have left the issue at their refusal, but we weren’t going to endorse a contract that codified discrimination.”
Goforth has been leading SPEEA, an affiliate of the white-collar International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE Local 2001), for the past five years. Based in the union’s Tukwila, Wash., headquarters, he manages a staff of 33 while working with the executive board and councils to implement direction and policies. All told, SPEEA represents about 25,000 engineers, technical personnel, pilots and other professionals in the aerospace industry. Most are employed at Boeing’s Puget Sound-region facilities, but others work for Spirit AeroSystems, BAE Systems and Triumph Composite Systems in Washington, Kansas, Oregon, Utah and California.
He came to the position from SPEEA’s sister local in Seattle, IFPTE Local 17, where he spent a decade as a union representative and strategic advisor. Like SPEEA, Local 17 is a white-collar union, made up of a diverse group of professionals, but they work in the public sector, for the City of Seattle and King County, and have jobs ranging from engineers and information technology experts to environmental and health specialists. He was also elected to two five-year terms on the King County Personnel Board to represent career-service employees.
Goforth and his wife, Kim ‘95, relocated to Washington in 1988 from Southern California, where they grew up. They both found work with social service agencies in Seattle but soon realized that they needed to go to college because he says, “We were interested in moving on to positions of more responsibility.”
At Evergreen, one of the seminal projects he and Kim tackled together was an independent contract during the summer of their freshman year, after they had taken a political economy program focused on Eastern Europe, shortly after the fall of Communism. They traveled to Czechoslovakia and Hungary and interviewed people who had previously been dissidents and were then involved in “setting up what was going to come next. They were trying to shape a new society.” The couple wrote papers, kept diaries and transcribed all their interviews with the help of translators. “It was the kind of thing we couldn’t have done anyplace else,” he says.
As an undergraduate, Goforth was active on campus. His different pursuits included serving as a student representative to the college’s board of trustees (as did Kim), writing a column reviewing ‘zines for the Cooper Point Journal and working as a tutor for KEY Student Services and a librarian and peer counselor in the Career Development Center. It was in the latter capacity, after he “spent years helping others figure out what they wanted to do,” that he says, “I came to realize for the things I was interested in, I really needed to get more advanced education.”
After graduating, he entered the University of Washington School of Law, where he clerked on the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower protection and advocacy organization, and with Kim published a human rights electronic magazine called Social Justice, which had 10,000 subscribers in 100 countries. Of the former experience, he says, “That gave me my first taste of employment law. I was deeply impressed by the people who risked their careers to expose wrongdoing.”
He also worked in the Education Division of the Washington State Office of the Attorney General, where he advised public institutions of higher education about union issues and found himself “sympathizing with the unions more than the schools. I liked this area, but needed to be on the other side of the table. I needed to be an advocate for employees,” he says.
Outside of work, Goforth leads a tranquil existence in Auburn with his writer-wife and their three children, ages 15, 11 and 9 (all of whom have the middle name, Justice). He credits Evergreen with putting him on his challenging, but satisfying, career path and says he draws from his interdisciplinary education every day, using what he calls his “Greener lens.”
Goforth believes that advancing the interests of his union’s professional members is a fulcrum in building the labor movement. “When a rocket scientist—which many of our people are—complains, they get on the TV news,” he says. “Because they have privilege in society, they have disproportionate power. They can access the levers of power to get something done. Organizing professionals is an important part of organizing the resurgence of labor. Organizing people with the least amount of power and a great deal of power will help bolster and grow the movement… People need to act collectively to get attention to their issues.” And labor unions “are one of the few checks left on the corporate concentration of power. They’re incredibly important.”