In 777X negotiations, both sides need to save face

The 777X impasse revolves as much around personality and leadership style as economies of scale. If the bottom line drove decision making, Washington would have landed the deal, Machinists contract or no. An educated workforce, a sublime place to live and raise a family, an aerospace culture of integrity and performance.

Today, the challenge is more nuanced and human. Boeing and the Machinists both require a face-saving out after November’s landslide contract rejection. Machinists felt railroaded, patronized by tut-tutting corporate suits and politicos, as if they were a necessary evil. And Boeing, after the Legislature genuflected and then some, passing the largest state tax break in U.S. history, needs to telegraph to shareholders that it won’t be pulled around by the short hairs (while quietly backpedaling on its anywhere-but-Everett campaign.)

This can happen if the two principal actors, Ray Conner, the CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, and IAM District 751 President Tom Wroblewski, find common cause. Negotiating over the last three days — away from the klieg lights and egos of the political class — was a promising sign. Step one is getting everyone in the same room. Step two, to paraphrase former EPA Administrator Bill Ruckelshaus, is recognizing that while collaboration is great, you can’t resolve every problem. And so on Thursday it went south, kaput. Proposal, counterproposal, rejection.

“We entered these discussions to address the concerns we were hearing from our employees,” Conner said. “We’ve listened to the union leadership and had an open dialogue in hopes of moving toward each other. Unfortunately the offer, which would have ensured this great airplane for the Puget Sound region, was immediately rejected by the union leadership.”

Conner’s statement was followed by a reminder that 22 states submitted proposals for 777X production. (Take that, devoted workforce.)

Conner and Wroblewski need to consider the other in a broader framework, an exercise described by the late historians Ernest May and Richard Neustadt in “Thinking in Time, The Uses of History for Decision Makers.” “Placing” someone is an imperfect but useful process for negotiation, and it’s as fundamental as understanding someone’s biography. Everyone has a useable past; the challenge is distinguishing what’s known, presumed and unclear. In Conner’s case, the salient fact is that he began his career in 1977 as a mechanic on the 727 program. For Wroblewski, the humiliation of a bigfooting international union calling the shots last month means that he will play hardball for district membership (hence, not budging on traditional pensions.)

This can be made right. Study the other guy, read “Thinking in Time” and give it another go. The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

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