One way or another, the ripples created this coming Friday will reverberate throughout the state. That is when Boeing workers who are members of the International Association of Machinists will take a second vote on the company’s contract offer.
The importance of the vote to Clark County? That can be explained in one simple fact — Boeing is the state’s largest private employer. According to numbers published in July by the Puget Sound Business Journal, the Chicago-based company has 85,000 employees in Washington, about half the aerospace giant’s total workforce. Continued bleeding of that number would be devastating to the Puget Sound region and would be felt throughout the rest of the state.
And bleeding is a concern. It started in 2001, when the company that largely built Seattle moved its headquarters to Chicago; it has continued throughout the past decade, as Boeing has increasingly moved its operations to other states. Boeing has demonstrated that loyalty does not run as deep as business concerns, and because of that the state legislature has attempted to apply a tourniquet. Called to a special session in November, lawmakers approved the extension of tax breaks for the company that would last through 2040 and save Boeing $8.7 billion. The goal was to lure Boeing to assemble the new 777X in the state, but when machinists rejected the contract offer with 67 percent of the vote, the plan was thrown into disarray.
All of which brings us to Friday’s vote and the dichotomy between past and present. Local union leadership has urged the rank-and-file to reject the contract offer, which would alter workers’ traditional pension program and would increase their contributions to health-care costs: “District 751 is recommending you reject the Company’s latest proposal because the terms of this agreement are destructive to what we have gained over the past 78 years.”
But the global economy has changed over those 78 years. For decades, Boeing faced essentially no overseas competition. Now, France-based Airbus produces roughly half the world’s jet airliners, and other international corporations have become players in the field. Technology and assets are more mobile than ever before, and that has led Boeing to seek every possible competitive advantage — even at the risk of alienating its longtime home and longtime workers.
In considering the contract proposal, workers must act in what is the best interest for them. But Boeing and the state of Washington also must act with the same consideration, and that is the primary issue for the long-term viability of the aerospace industry in the region. Commercial production of the 767 ends in 2016; the 747 — regarded as the plane that built Boeing’s huge plant in Everett — will halt production in 2018; and the old 777 will end in 2024. Boeing’s future in the state is about to undergo vast changes regardless of what happens with the 777X, and state officials must be prepared for that.
Recently, reports surfaced that Gov. Jay Inslee met in October with the president of Airbus Americas, a meeting that a spokesman characterized as the governor touting Washington’s aerospace suppliers. We hope that such discussions continue and expand in the coming months and years, as Washington has a strong infrastructure well-suited to aerospace manufacturing. Suppliers are prevalent throughout the state; a well-trained work force is available; and Washington has a long-proven commitment to the industry.
Boeing officials are saying that Friday’s vote could drive jobs from the state. Whether or not that is a valid threat, it is time for Washington to begin preparing for the possibility.