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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

January 17, 2013 at 10:20 AM

SPEEA’s difficult choice

I took heat from Boeing engineers and labor supporters for yesterday’s post, where I suggested that now was not the time for a strike. Unlike the union-hating trolls that usually leave their droppings on this blog (and here is an interesting article on the science of troll posts), these were intelligent and insightful. One example:

I disagree with your conclusion that “SPEEA should take one for the team” and accept a substandard contract. Jon, maybe you weren’t aware of this but SPEEA’s contract in 2008 was taking one for the team already in uncertain economic times. This contract being proposed by Boeing will amount to a net economic loss for most on the SPEEA payroll. The SPEEA negotiating committee even offered to extend the current 2008 contract recognizing the current issues. If we took one for the team, we would never recoup those losses. In addition this proposed contract is nothing more than divide and conquer with the ultimate goal of busting SPEEA by creating two classes of employees: one that receives benefits and the other does not.

Maybe a better way of rephrasing this sentence should be: “Unfortunately, SPEEA and Boeing must take one for the team this time, extend the current contract and avoid a strike.”

That’s absolutely right. At the very least, Boeing should accept SPEEA’s offer to extend the current contract so everyone can be focused on addressing the Dreamliner crisis.

But what if Chicago refuses? Its executive culture is driven, as one commenter rightly noted, by a pathological MBA mindset:

What the Jack Welchians and their ilk never consider are the intangibles that make a great company — loyalty, responsibility, historical knowledge, pride, commitment. Now, it is lack of those very qualities that may bring Boeing to its knees. Destroying the American workforce to increase shareholder value is being played out across this country. For that we get unemployment, inferior products, product recalls and now grounding of the 787.

As the management of Boeing works through some other intangibles like fear, embarrassment, and panic, let’s hope their solutions are not limited to a PR response to increase shareholder value. Maybe they should delve into the history of Boeing and reacquaint themselves with the principles that made it a great company in the first place – triple back-up for one.

Unfortunately, most of today’s business education dismisses history and operates on an ethos of “if it ain’t broken, break it!” If Chicago is intransigent, union engineers face a tough choice: Accept a substandard contract or strike. If it’s a strike, tell me how this ends? Union power has been eroding for decades, failing to benefit from manufacturing’s recent rebound. The supposed Kenyan Socialist in the White House hasn’t lifted a finger for card check, a sensible measure that would make unionization easier and bring some badly needed balance back to the system.

One emailer suggested that Boeing corporate is actually trying to provoke a strike so it can begin to dismantle the Puget Sound aerospace cluster in favor of North Charleston. I doubt that, as there are too many sunk costs here and Washington has shelled out $3 billion in incentives. But a strike would mark a turning point where the suits might be willing to take revenge, backed by numerous front-loaded studies, and gradually vacate Boeing’s home.

In an ideal world, Boeing directors would long ago have punished top management for their Dreamliner bungles. That world would also have wide support for organized labor, whose decades of hard work and blood made possible decent working conditions everywhere in America. It would have unions in their rightful place as an essential check on feral, foolish management and the foundation of a rising middle class. But we don’t live in that world. We’re back to the Gilded Age. Back then, American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers, no coward, was nonetheless shrewd enough to play the long game until public opinion and the Progressive Movement caught up. Even then, it took the Great Depression and New Deal to bring unions their rightful place in American life.

So to union members and supporters, I ask: Tell me how this ends? Trolls can go play somewhere else today.

And Don’t Miss: When growth is not a good goal || NY Times

Today’s Econ Haiku:

“Grounded” say the feds

Time for Boeing’s board to shout

“Pay clawback, you’re fired”

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