It’s mind made up early, Boeing’s talks with Murray were for appearances

Everett never had a chance.

At least it seems that way now to Sen. Patty Murray.

Months of quiet diplomacy on her part ended in disappointment when Boeing chose Charleston, S.C., over Everett for a second assembly line for the 787.

Disappointing but not surprising.

Signs of the company’s intentions had been popping up for months say those familiar with conversations that Murray had with Boeing.

Boeing executives only half-heartedly penciled in Everett for the coveted production line, discouraged Murray from rallying on the city’s behalf, held bad memories of the strike and Gov. Chris Gregoire walking the line, smarted from battles with state legislators and purchased a South Carolina aerospace company.

Murray heard firsthand on Feb. 9 about South Carolina’s favored status from Boeing execs Tim Keating and Phil Ruter. Charleston topped the list of choices with Everett scrawled along the margin, its chances slim if not none. They suggested Murray not waste her immense political capital trying to alter the course of events set in motion by Boeing’s big boss Jim McNerney.

Boeing’s plan for a second production line somewhere in America — the third will surely be in China — had gone from rumor to fact weeks before that February meeting.

Everett’s chances already seemed next to nil given the bitterness stirred by the Machinists strike in 2008.

McNerney had reached wit’s end with the union. He had shareholders pressing for profits, customers demanding deliveries and little patience for a work force eager to strike.

Yet, he liked Murray and respected the gravitas she holds in the nation’s capital. If she got deeply involved, McNerney was going to press pause on the process to see what evolved.

Murray began in February working to open a line of communication between Boeing and the union. The two sides needed to be talking if Everett was to have any shot at besting Charleston.

It wasn’t going to be easy. Even if they did start chatting, Boeing wanted a guarantee they could run a second production line for years without fear of strikes.

They called it a stable work force. They demanded a long-term contract ensuring no walkouts, period. They wanted 10 years of guaranteed labor peace.

To ask any union member to give up their right to strike is heresy. To ask Machinists fresh from the picket line and full of mistrust for those running the aerospace giant is, well, crazy.

Murray didn’t go that route. She did urge union leaders to look at the big picture for the long haul and to hear Boeing out. She wasn’t trying to mediate or negotiate for either viewpoint only to keep the conversation going.

Boeing deliberately set the bar high. For weeks and months there was little movement from workers. Murray, meanwhile, kept in touch with McNerney, meeting with him in May and June.

Neither side wanted lawmakers in the room during talks. So it left Murray, others in the congressional delegation, the governor and local elected officials to preach patience to both sides as Boeing signalled more of its intentions by buying Vought and securing development permits in South Carolina.

On Wednesday, Oct. 21, the union did something Boeing never expected.

Machinists reached up and grabbed hold of the bar McNerney thought was safely beyond their grasp. They submitted a “best and final” offer with a contract extension assuring no strikes through 2020.

Workers had a few things they wanted in the way of wages, benefits and, probably most annoying to Boeing, a commitment from the company for future work at the plant. These were negotiations on a long-term contract extension so a counteroffer from the aerospace company seemed in order.

It didn’t come.

Boeing went silent. Two days later, McNerney and Murray talked. Over the weekend there was a phone conversation between union and Boeing leaders.

Come Monday, Murray was back on the phone with McNerney, stressing how success was in sight with the two sides within an inch of one another’s positions. She felt confident the union would modify its stance if Boeing responded. McNerney made no promises.

The next night, the eve of the decision, McNerney and Murray spoke again.

This conversation differed from all their others. He told her a stable work force was not the only issue to be considered, though he didn’t share what other issues concerned him.

The conversation ended and with it all pretense of a second look at Everett.

Murray’s spokeswoman Alex Glass said this week, “I think Boeing was surprised they got as close as they did and may not have wanted to get to the finish line.

“There was somewhat of a feeling the jig was up and if they sat down with the union again they might have got more from the union,” she said.

Wednesday morning, Murray invited union and Boeing negotiators to her office, publicizing the sit-down to the media. Intuitively, she knew the decision was a done deal and Boeing would not show up.

This was no last-ditch effort, this was a brush back pitch from a skilled politician.

McNerney was to call her at 3 p.m. that day but didn’t. He was on a plane to South Carolina. He phoned after 4 p.m. and Murray let him rest on hold while she considered her words.

Framed on her wall is the first speech she delivered on the floor of the Senate in 1993. It was about Boeing, its history in the state and its roots in the people.

Reading it again gave her a moment to get perspective and decide what she would say. She picked up the phone and spoke of how the Boeing she knew for years is not the Boeing she’s been dealing with for months.

She hung up, still one of Boeing’s best allies in Congress where Washington’s interests are at stake.

There is really only one surprise in this week’s decision: how long it took to be made.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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