County nails down critical jet composite jobs

The News TribuneMay 20, 2014 

Tail assembly on Boeing’s new 777X will be done in Frederickson.

BOEING

Boeing’s announcement last week that it would build the tail assembly of its new 777X in Federickson was a watershed moment for Pierce County’s economy. It means that 1,800 high-paying South Sound jobs are probably secure for many years to come.

Dare we say, “Thank you, machinists”?

That announcement wouldn’t have happened had the region’s machinist union rejected a painful 10-year contract the company offered them last January.

After the rank and file voted down an earlier contract in November, Boeing had bluntly threatened to find another place to build the 777X – a project worth billions to this region – had the union turned down the second offer. Fourteen other states were vying for the work.

Even with that gun to their heads, nearly half of the machinists did turn it down; the contract won a scant 51 percent of the vote. Many members were furious about the ultimatum and the company’s move to replace their traditional pension with a 401(k) retirement plan.

But the alternative was the loss of the 777X, the next generation of an airplane that’s been one of the foundations of the Puget Sound economy for 20 years.

Work on the 777 – including construction of its composite tail assemblies in Frederickson – has bought a lot of groceries and helped make a lot of mortgage payments in the Puget Sound region. If its successor had been built in another state, much of the Frederickson work would ultimately have followed.

Even after Boeing and the machinists nailed down the 777X project in Everett, tail assembly at Frederickson wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Now it is.

The Frederickson plant isn’t important only for its payroll. It’s also long been on the cutting edge of carbon-fiber-based composite aircraft technology. Dave Moe, director of the site, described it to the Seattle Times as Boeing’s incubator for composite jet sections. He said some of its specialists will move to the Everett area to build the composite wings of the 777X.

Composites are the future of commercial aircraft. Frederickson’s expertise is going to be relevant for decades – now that it’s going to be around for decades.

One big problem remains to be solved: Assuring that those tail assemblies can actually get to Everett reliably on schedule, despite the relentlessly growing congestion of the region’s highways. The Legislature still must enact a transportation package that will relieve traffic chokepoints and make sure things like aircraft tails can get to their destinations when manufacturers need them.

The machinists have done their part. Now the Legislature must do its part to make sure Washington gets a firmer grip on the 21st century.

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