The solution to our Boeing crisis was just unveiled in the unlikeliest of places: a cradle of dysfunction where solutions usually go to die.
I’m talking about the other Washington, the capital of perpetual bickering, Washington, D.C.
There, two sides locked in more intractable loathing than even Boeing and our Machinists — congressional Republicans and Democrats — suddenly recalled the archaic skill of compromise.
And they did it over the exact issue that’s fueling the standoff at Boeing: pensions.
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“The pension deal was key to keeping this budget agreement together,” says Matt McAlvanah, spokesman for the Democrats’ budget negotiator, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
This week the U.S. Senate is expected to approve a federal budget agreement instead of engaging in holy war through the New Year, as had been sacred congressional tradition.
At the deal’s core is a pension trade-off. To simplify, Republicans wanted to cut worker pensions by huge amounts to save money. Democrats didn’t. In the end the two sides compromised with a plan that preserves pensions as is for current workers, while imposing higher contribution levels only on new hires.
Substitute “Boeing” for Republicans and “Machinists” for Democrats in that previous paragraph, and I bet we could have a 777X deal here, too.
“Senator Murray didn’t push for or support any of these pension or retirement cuts,” McAlvanah said. “But that’s the nature of compromise.”
Make no mistake: Eroding pensions for future hires makes it all but inevitable that pensions will go extinct eventually. As older workers retire and are replaced by new hires operating under the new rules, defending the pension becomes less urgent. That’s why federal union leaders labeled Murray’s deal “outrageous and totally unacceptable.” Not because it really is that bad, but it does hint at leaner times down the road.
Still, if we accept that pensions are dinosaurs — and most people seem to — then this is a way to phase them out gracefully.
That’s why Machinists have been hissing like cornered cats. They aren’t even getting the graceful exit.
Both Boeing’s first and second final offers would freeze the pension outright and install a less generous 401(k) for everyone. That’s a much more severe cut than what Boeing gave its 23,000 engineers and technical workers last spring.
In February, the engineers grudgingly voted to undo pensions only for new hires — a move Boeing’s CEO of commercial airplanes, Ray Conner, hailed precisely for its fairness.
“I can’t stress enough how important this move for new hires is to our company’s future,” Conner said then. It keeps valued current workers whole, Conner stressed, while, “Every potential employee has a choice to either join or not join the Boeing team.”
So why not that same deal for the Machinists? They wouldn’t like it, just as the engineers didn’t. But I bet they’d take it.
Sticking it to them sure isn’t working — not with company profits soaring and billions being handed out to investors. It isn’t working, that is, unless your goal is for them to say no.
Recently a sort of guerrilla counterproposal went viral in the factories. Proposed by an electrician on the 787 line in Everett, it suggested just such a pension give-and-take.
“Most members realize some concessions will be required going forward,” it reads. “The Boeing offer way overreached and was an insult, but there is still a huge middle ground from which an agreement can be found.”
You could hardly find two people farther apart ideologically than Patty Murray and Paul Ryan. But even they found this same spot in the middle ground. Of course they had to want to find it — to avoid the calamity of another government shutdown.
Boeing? Machinists? C’mon. Don’t give us the new crown as most dysfunctional Washington in the land.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org