Gregoire to court aerospace companies in Paris

Gov. Chris Gregoire will travel to Paris next month in an effort to keep aerospace vibrant at home in Washington.

The governor has a tall order at hand: Keep the aerospace companies that Washington has, attract ones it doesn’t and snag more work for companies in the state. She’ll do so with a

battle looming between the state’s largest aerospace company, the Boeing Co., and its Machinists union.

The Paris Air Show will be the backdrop for jet makers to court airlines, for suppliers to rub shoulders with the likes of Boeing and Airbus, for cities and states to woo aerospace companies.

Gregoire will show up with a message: “We want to be the home to Boeing manufacturing.” That includes competing for Boeing’s replacement for its 737 jet, whenever a competition is announced.

She also wants to attract additional business for the state’s 650 aerospace companies, many of which supply not only Boeing but also Airbus.

“We have an amazing supplier chain,” Gregoire said. “We’re the place to come.”

And Gregoire would like to see more aerospace companies locate in Washington. It’s a task the state hasn’t had much luck in doing in recent years. In fact, the state didn’t have much success at it during Gregoire’s last visit to Paris, in 2005, even after Boeing named Washington home to its original 787 line.

Things have changed since 2005. Gregoire and Washington are casting a wider net, looking beyond Boeing and its supply base to rival Airbus and emerging Chinese competitor Comac. The governor already spoke with the Chinese jet maker during a trip to Asia last year.

“We want our suppliers to supply to anyone in the world,” she said.

Gregoire will bring several of the state’s aerospace suppliers with her as well as representatives of Boeing’s unions.

“We want people to know, ‘Yes, there are unions, but most of our aerospace companies aren’t unionized and the ones that are have a good relationship with the unions,'” Gregoire said.

That last part could be a tough sell given the amount of attention a dispute between Boeing and its Machinists is garnering.

Boeing faces a complaint by the National Labor Relations Board. The board’s general counsel found merit in a charge by the Machinists that Boeing retaliated against the union when it chose South Carolina for additional 787 work rather than Washington state. The general counsel’s proposed remedy is to have Boeing set up a second line in Everett, though it has almost finished building a $750 facility in South Carolina.

Tom Wroblewski, president of the local Machinists union, said it would have been irresponsible for him not to have filed it with the labor board. He believes Boeing broke the law and essentially retaliated against its Machinists in Washington for labor strikes, an action protected under labor law. Boeing has said it will vigorously fight the complaint.

For her part, Gregoire plans to stay out of the dispute and believes other politicians ought to do the same.

“I’m not going to do what South Carolina is doing,” Gregoire said, referring to Gov. Nikki Haley, who has said her state needs to voice its opposition to the labor complaint in “a loud way.”

But Gregoire believes the Machinists and Boeing are getting along better today than in October 2009, when Boeing selected the North Charleston site for its second 787 line. Just last week, Boeing Chief Executive Jim McNerney said he’s hopeful about talks with the Machinists union next year.

“We’re trying to hit the restart button and see if we can get there,” McNerney said.

The Machinists’ Wroblewski, who had plans to be in Europe anyway for a union conference, was a little less enthusiastic than Gregoire about the union’s relationship with Boeing.

“All appearances are that we’re getting along,” he said.

Like the governor, he notes that the Machinists and Boeing worked together to win the Air Force tanker contract. And they’ve shared a mutual interest in aerospace training initiatives, like the $3 million that Gregoire allocated recently.

Wroblewski emphasized that his members are working hard to help Boeing ramp up production and to get Boeing’s 787 certified — more common goals with the company. But Wroblewski said Boeing has yet to have a conversation with the union about its plans for the future in the state, namely what it will do with the replacement for the 737 and where.

“The Machinists union is committed to building airplanes in the Puget Sound region, in the state of Washington,” Wroblewski said.

Gregoire is gearing up to make the state’s case for the next airplane. Part of the argument for Washington will be the message she and Wroblewski will convey in Paris: “We’ve got the highest amount of productivity with the lowest amount of risk,” Wroblewski said.

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