Time for Plan B for the 777X.
The Machinists union’s rejection of Boeing’s contract proposal Wednesday has thrown the huge aircraft assembly job up for grabs.
Multiple states – maybe other countries – will be fighting with Washington to win the multibillion-dollar project. Now we’ll learn whether the Puget Sound region, and the machinists themselves, can still make this state irresistible to the aerospace company.
It’s tough to see a guaranteed bonanza disappear. The deal rejected by rank-and-file machinists included a contractual commitment from the company to build the 777X and its successor aircraft here. The deal promised the Puget Sound region billions of dollars and tens of thousands of high-wage blue-collar jobs for a generation or more to come.
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The downside, to be borne by the machinists, was a relatively lean eight-year contract with pension and medical benefits more aligned with the rest of the private sector. By most standards, the compensation package looked generous. But union members are accustomed to getting a lot more, and they certainly aren’t accustomed to getting less.
The big, angry no vote has given Boeing reason to take the 777X elsewhere. Many machinists sounded outraged at the prospect of losing their right to strike every few years.
Their past enthusiasm for strikes has long since antagonized company officials, and Wednesday’s anger was evidence that the enthusiasm persists. They’ll be looking hard at competing states with their flinty, Chicago-based eyes.
Washington can yet win this project. It has a lot to sell:
• The Legislature has already promised to extend Boeing’s existing tax breaks – worth $8.7 billion – on condition 777X is built here.
• The machinists still retain bargaining power. They know how to build aircraft quickly and well. They have nearly two decades of experience assembling the hand-built 777. The 777X will be a modernized 777.
• Boeing has learned that the grass isn’t always greener. Much of the protracted hell it went through launching the 787 Dreamliner resulted from farming out major components to distant plants.
• In addition to its large, skilled Puget Sound work force, Boeing benefits from this region’s vast aerospace infrastructure, a good chunk of which lies at Frederickson in Pierce County. Everett, where the 777X would be assembled, offers direct and seamless sea access; few competing sites are likely to match that.
Being forced to compete isn’t exactly cause for celebration, though. Given the bad blood between labor and Boeing management, this will be a hard sell. Washington is back to square one – and Thursday’s square one is roughly 100 miles behind Tuesday’s square one.