Strictly Business: Boeing Machinist union not bad guy

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 
photoGordon Oliver, Columbian's business editor

Boeing surely must have figured it was offering its International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Machinist Union employees and Washington lawmakers a deal they would not — they dared not — refuse. But with as many as 20,000 future jobs on the line, all bets are now off.

In exchange for a promise that its new line of 777X airplanes would be assembled in Everett, Boeing pressed the state for $8.7 billion in tax breaks and incentives. It's eight-year contract offered a 1 percent wage increase every other year, plus cost-of-living increases. A 401(k) with employer match would replace the company's defined-benefit pension. Boeing sugar-coated its offer with signing bonuses for young workers and early retirement benefits for older workers.

The state got the message. Gov. Jay Inslee rushed legislators to Olympia where they slathered praise on Boeing as they put their stamp on the desired tax breaks. But union leaders were torn between acquiescing or putting out a battle cry.

Their leaders offered mixed messages. District Local 751 President Tom Wroblewski pitched with the governor for tax breaks, but followed by calling the contract "a piece of crap" at a union meeting. His members voted down the deal by a two-thirds margin.

The point-blank showdown is now underway, and so far no one is blinking. Boeing is window-shopping for a new home for 777X production, presumably with the tax incentives to which it has become accustomed.

Despite their bravado, the Machinists are fighting long odds. Public and political opinion is against them, judging from polls and newspaper editorials. No wonder: private union membership in the U.S. is now just 6.6 percent of workers, one-fifth of what it was in the 1950s.

Boeing showed its willingness to leave Washington in the lurch when it expanded Dreamliner production in North Charleston, S.C., even after our Legislature gave it tax breaks for Dreamliner production in Everett. Boeing's Northwest ties are weaker than ever, with its headquarters now in Chicago.

And yet the standoff now at hand may be more about emotions than pragmatics. That's the thinking of Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace industry analyst, in his report on the impasse. He argues that the contract's cost increases are not enough to justify the expense and disruption of relocation and training a new workforce. He calculates an 89 percent chance that Boeing will build the planes in Washington — if the decision is based on facts.

"If management won't compromise," he says, "that has less to do with economics and more to do with personal distaste."

Certainly, the Machinist members have jobs many workers would covet and the proposed contract is better than most. But Boeing is a marvel of a company, with its stock prices at near-record levels as it improves its profitability, manufacturing efficiency, and airplane reliability.

Wouldn't it be nice if, for once, a company's workers would enjoy some share of their company's extraordinary success? And wouldn't it be great if, for once, the rest of us could praise rather than malign workers for their deserved financial reward?