After the Machinists’ vote

The Machinists’ narrow approval of a revised, eight-year contract extension Friday provokes guilty relief; relief because the Puget Sound region will benefit from thousands of 777X jobs and the multiplier effect of a vital aerospace supply chain; and guilt, because the Boeing Co. was permitted to frame the debate, freighting Machinists with a decision that was wholly Boeing’s.

To paraphrase Tammany Hall politician George Washington Plunkitt, Boeing saw its opportunities, and it took ‘em.

“Tonight, Washington state secured its future as the aerospace capital of the world,” Gov. Jay Inslee said immediately after the vote. Elected officials such as Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick exhausted their political capital with organized labor by urging a “yes” vote. It was a calculated risk that paid off. But exuberance is leavened by the fickle reality of global capital.

As Rep. Rick Larsen noted in a statement: “Now that the state and union have delivered, it is time for Boeing to hold up its end of the bargain. Washington has shown that we stand behind a strong aerospace industry. Boeing should make the same commitment to our state.”

Boeing appears ready to step up, not only landing the 777X and its carbon-fiber wing (a huge, long-term boon) after the vote, but also production through 2024 of the 737 MAX. Nevertheless, Boeing’s “seen its opportunities” approach presages labor skirmishes to come.

There will be battles over the next-generation aircraft to replace the 737 and 757 later in the decade, and the company knows that the tax-break trough is just a special legislative session away.

Machinists were forced to unknot competing emotions: Whether to yield on defined pensions while bracing against headlines such as, “Pension-holders push Machinists to drop pensions;” to be cast arbitrarily as the deciders of the state’s economic future; and to maintain a sense of solidarity after a split between the local district and the international union.

MBAs will revisit this short history for decades to come.These were not industry-in-a-squeeze concessions; Boeing is thriving.

For companies throughout the region, the Machinists’ vote likely signals the death knell for defined pensions.

Machinists make a good living. Against the backdrop of the 777X fight, the long-term battle for worker prosperity may rest with those at the bottom of the ladder. A $15 minimum wage? That’s another fight.

The Machinists spoke Friday, and the Puget Sound region will reap the windfall. Jan. 3 was an historic moment. Let’s learn from it.

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