Dodging Unions and Taxes

Boeing is used to getting its own way. Earlier this year, for instance, it emerged the surprise victor in a long-running battle for a massive Air Force tanker plane contract.

That charmed existence is now facing a setback potentially much more serious than the bad press the company faced recently when a hole ripped open in one of its old 737s during a Southwest Airlines flight from Phoenix to Sacramento. The National Labor Relations Board is charging the company with a violation of federal labor law for its 2009 decision to locate a second Dreamliner aircraft assembly line at a non-union facility in South Carolina.

The South Carolina move was not just a blow to aerospace workers in the Seattle area, Boeing’s traditional manufacturing base. It was also an egregious example of a large corporation riding roughshod over communities and labor by employing two socially irresponsible practices at the same time: avoiding unions and dodging taxes. It is reassuring that at least one of those ploys may now be backfiring.

Boeing’s dual avoidance strategies started well before it became enamored of the Palmetto State. Although the company’s Washington State operations were unionized long ago, Boeing has for years tried to weaken those unions by seeking two-tier wage structures and by steadily outsourcing portions of the work to foreign contractors.

When the company was ready to begin production of its much-anticipated Dreamliner, it forced Washington to compete with around 20 other states for the work and agreed to stay there only after the legislature in 2003 approved a package of research & development tax credits and cuts in Business & Occupation taxes (the state’s substitute for a corporate income tax), sales taxes and property taxes that together were estimated to be worth $3.2 billion over 20 years. The state also overhauled its unemployment insurance system to reduce costs for Boeing and other employers and tightened up on workers compensation claims.

All those giveaways did not satiate Boeing. Rather than showing its appreciation to Washington, the company went shopping for a better deal for the second Dreamliner production line. In South Carolina it was rewarded with both a subsidy package that has been valued at more than $900 million (click on illustration for details) and a “right to work” law that all but guarantees to keep out unions.

The cumulative effect of Boeing’s practices can be seen in the details of its 10-K annual filings. As a result of those subsidies, the company estimates its total 2010 state tax bill at less than zero—it expects to receive a net refund of $137 million—despite pretax U.S. profits of $4.3 billion. (Thanks to other forms of tax avoidance, it is paying only $13 million in federal taxes.) At the end of 2010, 34 percent of Boeing’s employees were covered by collective bargaining agreements, down from 47 percent a decade earlier.

While Boeing may be a particularly flagrant case, it is far from the only large corporation that dodges unions and taxes at the same time. Unfortunately, the movements addressing these two problems tend to operate separately from one another. Few of the many groups that have recently been chastising General Electric for its tax avoidance mentioned the company’s assaults on unions, while those criticizing Verizon for its anti-union practices rarely note its meager state and federal tax payments.

There are exceptions. With help from my colleagues and me at Good Jobs First (among others), the United Food and Commercial Workers has made Wal-Mart’s tax avoidance one of the issues in its campaign to reform the company and ultimately respect the collective bargaining rights of its workers.

Linking the two issues has been made more urgent by the fact that the Right is taking the offensive on both fronts. This year has seen more attacks on worker rights at the state level and more attempts to lighten the tax obligations of corporations (and the wealthy) at both the state and federal levels than at any other time in modern U.S. history. Beating back both of those campaigns is the only way to protect any semblance of a just economy.

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