Large corporations are generally not bashful about throwing their weight around, but Boeing is in a class by itself. While other companies may at various times make demands on their workers or on the communities in which they operate, the aerospace giant is willing to exert both forms of pressure at the same time and in a big way. In recent days it has been doing exactly that in Washington State, though not everything has gone according to its plan.
Boeing let it be known that it would build its new 777X airliner and its carbon fiber wing in the Puget Sound area, its traditional manufacturing home, only if it got major concessions from the taxpayers of the state and from its unionized workers.
The first consisted of a 16-year extension of a lucrative aerospace industry corporate tax break estimated to be worth $8.7 billion to Boeing (mostly) and its suppliers. This is the largest state subsidy package in U.S. history. Gov. Jay Inslee hurriedly called a special session of the state legislature to ratify the deal. Although some legislators grumbled, they voted overwhelmingly to give Boeing what it wanted.
This was a replay of what happened a decade ago, when Boeing got Inslee’s predecessor Gary Locke to push through the original aerospace industry giveaway at a price tag of $3.2 billion. Those lawmakers apparently thought that Boeing, having gotten what it wanted, would stay put.
Yet Boeing’s concerns did not end at tax avoidance. The company has long sought to neutralize the power of its unionized employees, who in the Puget Sound area have been a lot less willing than the state legislature to give in to all of Boeing’s demands.
In 2009 the company took the brazenly anti-union step of announcing that it would locate a new assembly line for its Dreamliner in South Carolina, where it would in all likelihood be able to use non-union labor. In addition to a more pliant workforce, Boeing took advantage of a state and local subsidy package estimated to be worth more than $900 million. This year it was awarded another $120 million for an expansion of the facility.
Getting massive subsidies has been so easy for Boeing that in Kansas it walked away from a $200 million deal and sold off its Wichita operations. Citizens for Tax Justice just pointed out that over the past decade Boeing has paid aggregate state corporate income taxes of less than zero (it got net rebates of $96 million).
Boeing apparently assumed that the threat of more runaway production would enable it to steamroll its Puget Sound unionized employees, the largest portion of whom are members of the Machinists union (IAM). Along with the tax deal, the company made its siting decision on the 777X contingent on the willingness of IAM members to give up some of the most important gains they have made through decades of difficult collective bargaining.
Those proposed concessions included a freezing of the contract’s traditional defined-benefit pension plan and its replacement with a defined-contribution, 401(k)-type plan as well as substantial increases in deductibles, co-pays and other employee health insurance costs. In an attempt to make those givebacks more palatable, Boeing offered a one-time $10,000 signing bonus.
Boeing seriously misjudged the mood of the rank and file. Rather than succumbing to the company’s pressure tactics, IAM members just voted overwhelmingly to reject the contract concessions. Press reports suggested that union members were most angered by the way in which the company tried to impose its will.
The next step is unclear. Boeing says that it will now hold a competition for the 777X work, and there are no doubt numerous states and localities that will make extravagant subsidy offers. Yet it turns out that shifting production to a new workforce is not as easy as the company implies. Boeing’s operations in South Carolina have reportedly not met output projections.
Boeing may very well come back to IAM members with less draconian contract terms that workers may decide to accept. But for now the vote stands as a strong rebuke to corporate imperiousness.