A la Sonicsgate, Does Boeing Want to Leave?

Judging by the statements of Boeing officials, the aerospace giant wasn’t wasting time worrying about last week’s Machinists Union vote in Everett. No tears, no do-overs. Moments after the 2-1 contract rejection was announced, the company launched its search for a new 777 factory elsewhere.

“We’re left with no choice,” said defiant Boeing commercial chief Ray Conner, “but to open the [bidding] process competitively,” pitting state against state to see who can supply his company, which earns $1 billion profit every three months, with the biggest tax breaks and cheapest labor.

To some, it seemed Boeing was almost hoping for a contract rejection. As political blogger Jim Miller observed, Boeing officials can “now say that they tried for an agreement, while they start working on their first choice, moving the production to a lower-cost state.”

It’s not difficult to imagine Boeing’s corporate suits sitting around the boardroom as CEO Jim McNerney, who makes $500,000 a week and got a 20 percent raise last year, tosses out the idea of not only putting the new 777X line up for bids but first seeing how much more they might wring out of Washington: “Gut the employee benefits, triple the tax breaks, go for it, fellas! We end up in South Carolina again with more tax incentives and no union, or we get this ridiculous windfall from the suckers out West. So we stay a few more years. Then we do it again!” [Cheers. Cue the cigars and strippers.]

Could that have been Boeing’s stealth strategy? Having already secretly decided to move production, did Boeing throw down the tax-break gauntlet to gullible Gov. Jay Inslee and the knee-jerk legislature while demanding historic contract concessions from workers—knowing that whatever the outcome, they win?

“That’s certainly the way it looked to me, before and after the union vote,” Miller tells me. “If I am right, the union walked into Boeing’s trap, and Governor Inslee looks even more foolish than usual.”

It has the déjà vu stench of the dearly departed Sonics, whose rich Oklahoma buyers demanded that taxpayers build them a new arena, and, once rejected, claimed, as Boeing does now, that they had no choice but to move. As we later learned from his e-mails, owner Clay Bennett, while telling the public he wanted to stay, was privately telling investors “I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can” to move.

A similar ploy by Boeing seems probable, given the corporation’s broken promises. After getting a $3.2 billion tax break from Washington in 2003 to establish Dreamliner production in Everett, it opened a second line in South Carolina. In Kansas, Boeing enlisted the help of lawmakers to land the new Air Force tanker contract, then announced it would build the plane elsewhere. As Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran put it, “It’s difficult to negotiate with someone who hasn’t kept their word.”

Miller’s hardly alone in his conspiracy thinking. “Boeing knew the minute they made this offer that it would be rejected,” opined a reader in TheNew York Times. “Coming off a quarter of record profits, this just smacks of corporate greed gone wild.” He was one among hundreds who lined up to pummel Boeing over its tax and union demands out West—a spectacle that Seattle-based Times columnist Tim Egan called Boeing’s “race to the bottom.”

Nobody expects a big corporation to be any kinder or more generous than its bottom line allows, but I’ve never seen or heard the kind of fear and loathing for Boeing that has boiled up in recent days. In the past, dissent was often drowned out by a lack of interest when Boeing made a controversial move or got caught making bribes. The few objections raised were typically stifled by stockholders reassuring us that lying and stealing were the necessary costs of big business.

And that precinct has been heard from as usual: After last week’s union contract rejection, Boeing stock was still at an all-time high. And at the weekend Dubai air show, Boeing counted almost $100 billion in orders for the 777X—making it the biggest commercial jetliner launch in aviation history.

But the once-Seattlecentric company known affectionately as the Lazy B had, in the words of commenters, become a greedy global conglomerate worthy of mention in the same breath as predator banks and Wall Street criminals. Not only were Boeing’s ethics being questioned, so were the quality of its products. “I’m not so sure I will, in the future, trust Boeing to make, and to keep maintained, the best airplane, if their only interest is slashing costs,” was a typical comment. “The Airbus selling point just became, ‘You can buy labor cheap and risky from Boeing, or you can buy quality from Airbus.” If this was a jetliner campaign intended to win hearts and minds, it’s working—for Airbus.

randerson@seattleweekly.com

Journalist and author Rick Anderson writes about crime, money, and politics, which tend to be the same thing.

 
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