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April 10, 2013 at 1:59 PM

Boeing, South Carolina and the Machinists’ mistake in 2009

2012: Boeing's South Carolina plant rolls out its first 787. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith).

2012: Boeing’s South Carolina plant rolls out its first 787. (Photo by Bruce Smith / Associated Press)

Wednesday’s story by Seattle Times reporter Dominic Gates about the Boeing Co.’s $1 billion expansion in South Carolina brings the immediate thought: Boy, were the Aerospace Machinists dumb back in 2009.

Remember the situation then? America was at the bottom of the worst recession in a generation. Blue-collar jobs were disappearing by thousands. Hundreds of thousands. At Boeing, the Aerospace Machinists had some of the best industrial jobs in the Pacific Northwest, and their jobs were not disappearing. Boeing was creating a new airplane, the 787, that the world wanted.

But because the Machinists had gone out on strike so many times (including, as this Seattle Times story shows, in September 2008, the very month Wall Street and WaMu collapsed) and because Boeing’s new airplane was a couple of years late (not the union’s fault) the company demanded a long-term no-strike agreement, else it would consider putting the second production line in some other state, probably South Carolina.

The immediate reaction to this was: Jerks! Traitors! Chicago corporate greedheads! Then it was: South Carolina? Are you kidding? Seattle Post-Intelligencer cartoonist Dave Horsey drew a cartoon of South Carolina workers trying to push a wing into place, and asking for help from a dog. The cartoon had an outhouse in it, and a noose. It expressed the feeling many people here had.

Times Columnist Danny Westneat talked to assembly workers at the Everett plant. They didn’t think the guys in South Carolina could do what workers here did. One said: “There’s not the skill factor down there to pull this off.”

Westneat thought the union guys were wrong. A lot of people did. I wrote a column about a meeting in Lynnwood where Democratic politicians of the sort the Machinists supported, including then U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, told the Machinists they’d better cut a deal. I said Dicks was right.

The Seattle Times ran an editorial on it:

To the Aerospace Machinists, we say: If you walk away without an agreement, you fail.

We want you to succeed. But this is not a negotiation in which you have your usual bargaining power. You can’t strike. You are under contract. And you are negotiating about an agreement in which you give up your right to strike for a number of years. It’s not a nice place for a union to be, but that is where you are. Accept it, and get the best deal you can.

Their negotiators did not accept it. Boeing had them over a barrel, and by God, the union men were just not going to give in unless the company made an equivalent concession about limiting its investments on other aircraft lines. And the company, which was not over a barrel, was not willing to make that concession. So there was no deal, and Boeing went to Charleston.

Carping now is hindsight. But it wasn’t hindsight when I wrote about it in 2008, or when Westneat did, or when Norm Dicks lectured union leaders on it to their faces. Everybody could see it — except the Aerospace Machinists.

And now, another billion of Boeing capital invested in South Carolina. They build BMWs down there, too.

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