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Originally published Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 12:12 AM

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Danny Westneat

Boeing, Machinists and denial

So Boeing is threatening to jilt us (again). To run out on our nine decades of marriage with someone smarter? Better? More reliable? Nope Nope. With someone cheaper.

Seattle Times staff columnist

So Boeing is threatening to jilt us (again). To run out on our nine decades of marriage with someone smarter? Better? More reliable?

Nope. With someone cheaper.

Take away the heat, all the union-bashing or management second-guessing as Boeing now appears ready to move a major piece of its plane-building operations to South Carolina. At the core of this breakup drama is a cold statistic: 14.

As in $14. Per hour.

That's the average pay of the local line workers who are building the fuselage of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner in a Charleston, S.C., plant.

Average pay of a Boeing Machinist around here? $28 an hour. Now, these pay averages aren't directly comparable, say people in the know. Many of Boeing's workers in South Carolina are younger or less experienced (the plant is only 4 years old). So the average pay there tilts lower.

Still, the average pay at Costco stores around Seattle is $17 an hour. According to PayScale, a Seattle company that tracks wages, the average for a hairstylist in Seattle is $18.24 an hour.

So Boeing right now is paying less to build airplanes in South Carolina than we pay for cutting hair or shelving 3-pound jars of olives.

How can we compete with that?

"It's like they have people who used to work at Kmart, trying to build an airplane."

That's Jack Day, a "shaper operator" at Boeing's sheet-metal plant in Auburn. Basically, he cuts parts in exacting detail so they fit into airplanes. Everything from flight decks to door frames.

He's been doing it for 37 years. His dad was a Boeing mechanic, and before that his grandmother was a factory clerk and a Rosie the Riveter.

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His view — that Boeing would be insane, even suicidal, to try to build planes in South Carolina — is epidemic among Machinists here.

"They'd have to go down there and start from scratch," he says. "There's not the skill factor down there to pull this off."

Exhibit A is the 787 Dreamliner, now hopelessly behind schedule, due in part to botched work in South Carolina and by outsourced contractors elsewhere.

I spoke to a half-dozen Machinists outside the Everett plant last week about Boeing's threat to leave unless the union agrees not to strike for 10 years. They echoed Day's doubts about it all.

"It's a bunch of malarkey," said one, a 22-year veteran.

Uh-oh. I kind of got the impression Boeing was serious around the time they applied for building permits. In Charleston.

I sympathize with the workers above — it's got to be shortsighted to build planes at near fast-food wages. Hasn't Boeing learned anything from the Dreamliner debacle?

But I also think we're in denial about what's happening here. I bet 25 years ago in Detroit, they thought nobody in the South could figure out how to build cars, either.

Now? Two-thirds of foreign cars sold in the U.S. are built in the U.S. At nonunion plants. So many are in the South that they've dubbed Interstate 85 through Alabama, Georgia and yes, South Carolina, the "American Autobahn."

So what should we do? It may be too late, but to date, Boeing hasn't asked to cut wages or benefits. Just a break from the striking. So why not give it to them?

Why not some version of extending the current contract, which has three years left on it, for another seven? Or compromise — extend it for another four. Or go to binding arbitration, as Boeing apparently asked.

It's true setting aside strikes, for a time, would likely lead to downward pressure on wages and benefits. But our competition is $14 an hour. That's the reality. The trade-off is Everett would get the new 787 line. The workers would get a measure of security. And the company gets to keep the best thing it's had all along.

I'll let Day fill in that blank. I met him on the strike line in 2005 and was impressed, back then, how he was worried not about short-term gain, but about pensions and retirement issues. About the long view.

The other day he countered my fretting about the power of the number 14 by citing the number one. "Did you know we're popping out one new 737 every day in Renton? One plane per day. We prove it, every day. We know how to do this here."

What's the market value of that? I would have thought a lot more than 14 bucks, but like our machinists, I guess I would have thought wrong.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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