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Boeing tries the Charleston swing

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on July 4, 2009 at 7:59 pm |
July 4, 2009 7:59 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

It is infinitely easier to keep a big employer in the region than to recruit a big employer from elsewhere. Yes, we’re talking about Boeing.

The aerospace company is again signaling that it is feeling footloose and disenchanted with its one-time homeland in Puget Sound. This time, the signaling has taken the form of negotiations – reported by the Wall Street Journal – to purchase a fuselage assembly plant near Charleston, S.C., owned by Vought Aircraft Industries

You don’t have to decipher tea leaves to get the message. Here’s how it reads:

&bull Delivery of Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ new 787 has been severely delayed. More than 860 of the cutting edge airliners are on order, and the company may need a second assembly line to speed production and keep its customers happy.

&bull Boeing sees greener pastures elsewhere. A study commissioned by Gov. Chris Gregoire concluded in April that Washington has the highest construction, labor and workers compensation costs compared to rival states.

&bull The company is sick of its machinists and engineers unions, which stage walkouts here every few years. The April study found that Boeing sees more production time lost to strikes in Washington than elsewhere.

&bull South Carolina, a right-to-work state, offers a more compliant work force.

&bull A 787 plant can be created just about any place, because the manufacturing process consists of fitting together prefabricated sections and components, not building from scratch.

&bull Washington had better make itself a more Boeing-friendly state. Boeing moved its headquarters from Seattle in 2001. It can move future aircraft production out-of-state, too.

Do those discussions with Vought look like Boeing jerking the state and the unions around again? You could be forgiven for thinking so.

But from Boeing’s point of view, it sells airplanes in a ruthlessly competitive, Darwinian global market, its competitors snapping at its heels. It lives or dies by its ability to deliver jets of the highest possible quality at the lowest possible cost on the tightest possible deadlines. Based in Chicago now, it is unsentimental about its Puget Sound roots.

Still, Boeing provides generous pay and benefits to tens of thousands of workers here – including suppliers, contractors and many retail and service employees supported by the aerospace payrolls.

Those jobs – union jobs, in many cases – cannot be kissed off because the company plays hardball with its former home team.

Here’s a brutal truth: If Boeing starts building 787s in South Carolina and likes it, Puget Sound will eventually cease to be a major aerospace center. Washington’s political and labor leaders must do what it takes to keep that from happening.

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