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Originally published Saturday, November 9, 2013 at 6:04 PM

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Anguish many of us understand

As Boeing tries to slash pensions for its own employees, its CEO is out arguing to cut the nation’s retirement plan, Social Security, as well. Will workers reach a breaking point?


Seattle Times staff columnist

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What we’re hearing from the Boeing Machinists right now isn’t just the usual labor-management posturing. It’s a primal scream of the middle class.

When a union boss the other day called Boeing’s offer to do the 777X jetliner work here a “piece of crap,” he was of course referring to the gory details of that contract: the canceled pension plan, the slashed benefits, the appalling 1 percent pay raise issued only every other year.

But he could just as well have been anguishing for depressed workers everywhere. He summed up, in one phrase, the state of economic security for laborers far beyond the walls of our (formerly) hometown airplane-maker.

Take one aspect of the Boeing showdown, the pensions. For decades Boeing has given its line workers a decent retirement benefit. It pays out about $90 a month for every year worked at the company, so that someone with 30 years of service would get $2,700 a month when they’re done at age 65.

Add Social Security to that and you’ve cobbled together a comfortable but hardly posh old age for sheet-metal workers, riveters and others who build the nation’s planes.

Boeing wants to cancel those pensions and put in much weaker 401(k) plans. There’s little doubt this will happen, sooner or later. Because if it doesn’t, Boeing can use pension-free laborers in South Carolina to do the same work.

It’s a race to the bottom. Or rather, a slog to an era when workers will be more reliant on Social Security than ever.

So what’s most galling is that Boeing’s CEO is out pushing to cut back on the nation’s retirement plan as well.

In recent years Boeing CEO Jim McNerney has headed the Business Roundtable, a lobbying group of top U.S. corporations. Earlier this year that group called for raising the eligibility age for Social Security to 70 years old, as well as crimping back on the benefits (by reducing the index of inflation used to calculate payouts.)

“We are going to need our employees to work longer just to fill the needs that we have in the work force,” said a Roundtable suit, helpfully explaining why all Americans should willingly retire later, for less.

I ruefully know firsthand why a company might reconsider its pensions. Few companies have pensions anymore, and it’s true the obligations can be an anvil. Here at The Seattle Times we froze our pension a few years back. It was the toughest vote we’ve ever taken, but we did it to try to save the company and our jobs.

Boeing is racking up record profits, though. Its stock hit an all-time high Friday. Yet its CEO picks this moment to go for a double-whammy worker takedown — gutting the pensions of its own employees, and going after Social Security to boot.

If we accept that companies can’t provide for retirement anymore, wouldn’t that mean we need to expand Social Security, not shrink it?

Speaking of expanding, that’s what keeps happening to the pension of Boeing’s CEO. According to the company’s recent annual reports, McNerney’s pension holdings soared by $6.3 million just in the past year.

If McNerney retires now he will get $265,575 a month. That’s not a misprint: The man presiding over a drive to slash retirement for his own workers, and for stiffs in the rest of America, stands to glide out on a company pension that pays a quarter-million dollars per month.

Man, you can see why people around here are starting to vote for the socialists.

Seriously, I have long argued we should give Boeing mostly what it wants if it means the company will keep building planes here. Aerospace jobs are so valuable it’s one of the industries worth giving corporate welfare.

But there’s a breaking point. I don’t purport to know what the Machinists will do, or even what they should do. But I don’t blame them for the primal scream.

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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