Crunch time for the 777X

Boeing is a Rorschach test. The company looks like a Fortune 500 bully. Or living-wage jobs. Or a touchstone for all-things-Cascadia.

Everyone has a stake, which means everyone has an opinion. What matters about the 777X isn’t connect the dots logic; it’s how the suits in Chicago perceive the inkblot.

Lawmakers, fearful of the economic fallout, are taking lumps for acting like Boeing toadies. Legislators magoozled the largest tax giveaway in U.S. history in the derisively dubbed “Boeing Special Session.” Caught up in the effluence of their exuberance, politicians threw it back to the Machinists: Vote for the new contract or the 777X (and, just as significant, its composite wing) will go to Long Beach or Charleston, and Everett will look like a scene in Oliver Twist.

No style points for the politicos. Finger wagging and grandstanding were met with a supermajority “no” vote. Machinists will vote again Jan 3 on a revised contract. The intra-union split between the international and the local, a sense of getting railroaded, an unfair burden that Washington’s future rests with them (cue Charles Dickens again), a gut-check that Boeing is bluffing: These feelings may spell another “no” vote.

Wisely, Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick are focused on the what-ifs. If the lesser angels supplant the bottom line (Boeing CEO Jim McNerney is no fan of the union) and Boeing skedaddles, Puget Sound will be hit very hard.

Over time, Everett will lose 20 percent to 30 percent of its revenue, Stephanson said. Boeing Commercial is the country’s largest exporter and Washington’s biggest private employer. What about the 747, the bird that built the Everett plant 45 years ago? It ends production in 2018. Commercial production of the 767 ends in 2016. The old 777 ends production in 2024.

Couple assembly phase-outs with increased automation, and it’s a slow bleed. The ripple effect will extend statewide, with aerospace suppliers and operations in nearly every county, including Eastern Washington.

In addition to city coffers, there are local nonprofits which survive on the generosity of Boeing employees. We hope for enough diversification to offset a post-Boeing vacuum. But hope can’t be quantified.

Everyone feels an absence of respect: The Machinists who already have a contract that runs through 2016; politicians working 24/7 to keep the jobs here (while alienating labor support); and Northwesterners stung by the betrayal of an old friend.

Whatever the outcome, the 777X decision rests with Boeing. Washington has the workforce, the infrastructure, the state support, the quality of life. Keep your ring on, Boeing, and stay in the marriage.

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