In Our View: Flying Higher

Agreement between Boeing, unionboosts Washington’s economic recovery

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Wednesday night’s approval by Unionized Boeing Machinists of a new four-year labor agreement immediately and effectively triggers four significant positive developments.

First, Washington state’s economy receives a much-needed boost with the assurance that airplane manufacturing will increase dramatically in the Puget Sound area and among related business around the state, including in Clark County. The union represents more than 30,000 workers in three states, but especially in Washington, the new agreement carries tremendous clout. Boeing’s updated 737 line — the 737 MAX — will continue to be based in Renton, where the plant already is producing a record 35 narrow-bodied planes a month. Plans call for increasing production to 42 planes per month by 2014, expanding from 300 workers in Renton to more than 1,000.

The state also benefits from the strengthening of its workforce. “Boeing is acknowledging we have the deepest pool of skilled aerospace workers in the country,” said Mark Blondin, the Machinists’ aerospace coordinator.

Second, Boeing benefits from the assurance of labor peace for four years. The company was plagued by strikes in 2005 and 2008, and the 76-year relationship between Boeing and the Machinists became so fractured that the company announced a second assembly plant in union-free South Carolina. Now, though, as New York financial analyst Howard Rubel told Bloomberg Businessweek: “To avoid disruption during the next several years when production is expected to ramp up to over 650 planes per year translates into a notable reduction in risk for Boeing.”

Third, an agreement between a mega-manufacturer and a huge union exemplifies the type of successful negotiations that are vital during this economic crisis. Each side gave a little. Union workers, for example, agreed to pay more of their health care costs. But they also received a 2 percent raise in each year of the contract, a new performance-based incentive program and a $5,000 ratification bonus. Those, however, are mere statistics. The bigger triumphs are beyond numbers: The Machinists get plenty of work, and Boeing gets plenty of business.

Fourth, this week’s progress trumpets more than sufficient reason for the federal National Labor Relations Board to drop its ill-advised complaint against Boeing. The NLRB alleged that Boeing’s opening of the assembly plant in South Carolina violated labor laws. That claim was silly from the outset, as President Obama seemed to indicate in June: “As a general proposition, companies need to have the freedom to relocate. They have to follow the law, but that’s part of our system.” And as noted in a Columbian editorial at the time, we couldn’t agree more.

After Wednesday night’s approval of the new contract by 74 percent of the Machinists’ voting members, union officials said they would drop their complaint about the South Carolina plant. That should be ample reason for the NLRB to also drop its complaint.

Those four triumphs — by the state, a company, a union and the private sector’s right to do business wherever companies choose — mean it’s time to admire the seasonal bow that’s tied on the union agreement. The aerospace industry is poised for rapid recovery from the recession. We hope other factors can expedite that recovery, and we’re glad Washington state will remain the same airplane-making epicenter that it’s been for more than nine decades.