Boeing management and the company’s 23,000 Puget Sound-area engineers and technical workers are squared off in curiously antagonistic contract negotiations. Both sides need to take a deep breath.
They are in this together, and each side loses if the labor dispute slides into combative negotiations or, worst of all, a strike.
Boeing has been adroit enough to recover from disastrous decisions to scatter fabrication of bits and pieces of the 787 around the globe. Failure to maintain quality control was costly.
Across the bargaining table is the Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA). No one disputes the talents and skills of its members. The union is entering a transitional phase as a large cohort of members moves toward retirement.
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SPEEA, for all of its demonstrated abilities in a specialized field, faces competition for work within the industry and around the world. Assumptions about a lock on local work would be costly. Chicago-based Boeing acted on old threats to expand outside Puget Sound.
The current labor situation, for all of its unique circumstances, has stirred renewed interest in a September 1991 speech by Frank Shrontz, then chairman and chief executive of Boeing, to the annual meeting of the now-Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
Shrontz spoke with great respect for the skills and talents of Boeing’s labor force, and the supportive region that contributed to the company’s success. But his speech was steeped in caution:
“In my judgment, the number one enemy of Boeing today is complacency,” Shrontz said, “If management, our workforce — and the larger community — start to take the continued success of this company for granted, we are in serious trouble.”
He spoke of the need for “continuous quality improvement” inside the company to improve performance and reduce waste. He applied the same standard to public investments in infrastructure — airports, runways and air-traffic controls — to accommodate growth of air travel.
Shrontz was also looking over his rhetorical shoulder at the hard-charging European competition from Airbus.
He noted the expansion of the Everett plant to build the 777 had come with “an extra $50 million price tag for mitigation costs.
” The expense of new facilities in Puget Sound had the company crunching numbers. Shrontz said a similar plant could be built for 30- to 40-percent cheaper in Kansas or Alabama, which is where Airbus announced, on July 2, that it will build a $600 million jetliner assembly plant.
The speech came at a time when Boeing’s employment in Washington state was 105,000. After plunging to 53,000 by 2004, it has now rebounded to near 87,000.
Puget Sound has and attracts outstanding workers. They do superior work and there is a tradition of solid performance.
Both sides must acknowledge what it takes, in Shrontz’s words, “to accommodate additional growth.”
The stakes extend beyond the terms of a new contract. Failure to bargain for a realistic, fair agreement will be costly for management, employees and the region in the future.