Peter Callaghan: Boeing is no longer as loved as it once was

Staff WriterNovember 10, 2013 

One after another, the state’s business and local government leaders took to the microphone to praise Boeing last week.

The jet maker and the associated suppliers and spinoffs are a vital economic sector in Washington, they said. Tens of thousands of Washingtonians have high-paying jobs because of the aerospace business. The state economy benefits. Lots of taxes are collected for state and local government.

But then, you already knew that. And so did every member of the legislative committees charged with passing the bills necessary to keep Boeing from putting out to bid the wing production and final assembly of the advanced 777X.

So why the drill? And why three different times before three different committees? Unlike the national competition a decade ago to build the 787 Dreamliner, the Chicago-based company is letting its birthplace state have first dibs. Extend sales and business tax reductions first passed in 2003. Add positions at community and technical colleges to train aerospace workers. And do it quickly, please, or the bidding will begin.

So it seems that all those people weren’t saying nice things about Boeing because they are true – though much of it likely is true. Gov. Jay Inslee didn’t call a special session to complete this single task because Boeing hadn’t had its ego stroked lately.

They said it and he did it because the company could move to another state. It was almost as though the audience for the praise wasn’t individual legislators but Boeing itself. In these state vs. state competitions for business investment, it isn’t enough to offer tangible benefits like tax breaks. We have to love them as well.

That might explain why the primary beneficiary of extending existing tax breaks worth $8.7 billion between 2025 and 2040 didn’t testify at all. Boeing’s lobbyists were in the room but didn’t speak. Some found that odd, arrogant even.

I now realize it would be a violation of etiquette for the entity being toasted to partake of the toast. It would be like Britain’s Elizabeth joining in when her subjects sing “God Save The Queen.” Tacky, right? Her role is to absorb the praise and perhaps offer a tight-lipped smile, perhaps a wave.

The little secret, though, is that Boeing isn’t all that loved anymore. Respected, yes. Feared, for certain. But not loved. Perhaps being threatened with economic ruination grates on folks after awhile, even politicians.

And then there was the whole South Carolina thing in which a few years after the Legislature gave Boeing tax breaks to guarantee the 787 Dreamliner would be assembled in Puget Sound, Boeing announced that it didn’t mean all of them would be assembled in Puget Sound.

A second line was built in Charleston. And it is that plant that gives credibility to Boeing’s suggestions that the 777X could go there as well.

Resentment from what was viewed as a double-cross percolated up during the hearings, beginning with Inslee who said the new plan has stronger language to be certain that all means all. The few who dared to speak ill of the tax break bill said it should even include so-called clawback language that would require Boeing to pay back tax benefits it already received should it sneak in a second 777X assembly plant elsewhere.

But that sort of revolt goes only so far. After a Thursday Machinists Union meeting in which the rank and file railed against pension and health care givebacks and the head of the union tore up the contract and said he wished it didn’t have to come up for a ratification vote, backers of the deal got worried.

Inslee tried to remain calm, saying passion and disagreement is to be expected. But then he returned to the No. 1 message of the special session – should the Legislature fail to act and should the union fail to ratify, Washington could lose this plant and perhaps others.

“We have something 49 governors and about 145 presidents around the world lust after,” he told the Senate Ways and Means Committee. And should Washington fail to act, many of them would be on the phone to Boeing headquarters the next day trying to make a deal.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com @CallaghanPeter

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