Latest Boeing episode an unmitigated disaster

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Was Boeing bluffing?

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee didn't appear to think so. Tom Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists in Washington, D.C., wanted District 751 to take Boeing's offer. The district president, Tom Wroblewski, called the offer "crap," but didn't act as if he thought it a bluff.

Four years ago, Boeing threatened to set up a second 787 line in South Carolina unless the union in Everett agreed not to strike for 10 years. Then the political friends of labor, including U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, said publicly it was not a bluff. In 2009, the union's negotiators ignored this and said "no" to the company's offer. And Boeing went to South Carolina.

Another year, another ultimatum. A cry arose from workers about respect and about having demands made of them in the middle of the contract. You can understand why they would be sore. Still, it was reality. They had to choose.

The "yes" forces were resigned and quiet, and the "no" forces prideful and shrill. The "no" side accused Boeing of having big profits and Chief Executive Jim McNerney of having obese pay and benefits. They accused Murray and Inslee of wanting to look good to voters by keeping Boeing in Washington. They accused Buffenbarger of wanting the steady flow of dues to the union international.

Maybe all that was true, but it wasn't what the vote was about. It was about whether to accept the terms for billions of dollars of work extending into the 2030s. And the members said no.

An emotional decision

It was a matter of honor to them. They recalled the history of the "Fighting Machinists," as if their value in the economy was based on saying "no" a lot and going on strike. The Machinists (who are not machinists, but assembly workers) spoke as if they were indispensable and entitled.

Their friends in the media called Boeing's terms "a race to the bottom." It was a silly phrase. There were take-backs, but the top pay ($33 to $43 per hour in various grades) was not cut, and it continued to be protected from inflation, unlike most private-sector pay. Workers would have investment risk on their retirement, but most American workers have had to accept that. Boeing offered to fund the Machinists' retirement savings with essentially a 10 percent match and even more in the first few years.

These are not workers within a light-year of the bottom. Their decision to say no to Boeing's offer cannot be explained by economics. It was emotional.

In the aftermath I hear the dark suggestion that Boeing wanted a "no" vote to give it an excuse to skedaddle, as if it needed one. If the company was set on "no," why did it accept the union negotiators' proposal for the $10,000 signing bonus? Would the company have called on politicians to stand in the spotlight for a proposal it wanted to fail, thereby leaving a governor and a senior U.S. senator out to dry? The whole episode speaks much more of miscalculation than of intent.

It is a disaster.

The company now says it will choose a site within three months. We can hope that the billions of dollars in sunk costs give the Evergreen State an edge and that management will follow a strictly rational process. But bosses also can make emotional decisions. Right now, that would be "anywhere but Everett."


Bruce Ramsey’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is bramsey@seattletimes.com