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Originally published Tuesday, January 7, 2014 at 8:53 PM

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Boeing puts all pensions at risk

It’d be nice to think the vote by Boeing’s Machinists last week will bring peace to the war over pensions. But it probably accelerated it.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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Now that our state’s pensioned politicians have so deftly assisted Boeing in wrenching pensions away from its line workers, the big question is: Who’s next?

A wrap-up story in this paper last weekend suggested that the stable retirements of Boeing’s 21,000 engineers will now be on the chopping block.

“SPEEA will be in the fat bull’s-eye next time,” one Boeing analyst was quoted, referring to the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, which still retains traditional pensions for all but new hires, at least until its contract is up in 2016.

But there’s another more immediate target, one made ripe by the politics of the big Boeing squeeze play of 2013: state employees.

“Republicans have long wanted to do away with pensions for public employees, and I fear we just gave them an opening to bring that up again,” said Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater, one of the few to vote against the Boeing tax breaks last fall.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, last year proposed replacing state pensions with a 401(k)-style plan — exactly as Boeing just did.

The argument against Tom’s legislation was clear at the time: 401(k)s are not as good as pensions for the workers.

But how do Democrats make that argument now when they just spent two months siding with Boeing management against the Machinists on the exact same issue?

“Boeing used the political class to leverage the workers to give up their pensions,” Reykdal said from Olympia. “Nobody around here may want to admit it, but that’s what happened.”

It did win us the plane. Who knows if Boeing ultimately would have stayed or gone, but there’s no question it’s better to keep Boeing here, with all its jobs, than to lose them to another state.

But the way it was done — with Boeing and local politicians joining to pressure workers, as if they all were execs for the same conglomerate — felt unprecedented to me. The sense of being besieged from above was captured in a letter the 17-year-old daughter of a Machinist wrote to Gov. Jay Inslee.

“As of late, I’ve had to question your involvement in my father’s union issues,” began Mia McFarland, a student at Kentlake High School. She noted Inslee’s own gold-plated health care and pension, and closed with: “So Governor, if you don’t mind, I hope you get back to the business of working for the average citizen, the poor, the working class, and not the CEO who makes more in a year than my father makes in a lifetime.”

Inslee wrote back, saying he never pressured the Machinists on how they should vote (which seems disingenuous — obviously he wanted them to vote yes, both times — but you can read his entire exchange with Mia at http://on.fb.me/19ZYCTO ).

Beyond Inslee, that news conference last week at which six local politicians called on the Machinists to sacrifice their pensions for the “good of the community and our economy” — even though all six have secure public pensions of their own — summed up the inequities at the heart of this showdown.

It’s going to have long-term political fallout, in my view.

Why? Because, in the case of Democrats, it leaves them with little standing to fight to save pensions for anyone. Not for state workers.

The argument writes itself: If doing away with pensions was so crucial for the health of a private company making record profits, then why not for a cash-strapped state?

Embittered union members already have started the backlash.

“Time for all unions to come together and get an initiative to the people to eliminate all politicians’ pensions in Washington state,” was a typical post on the Facebook page for Rosie’s Machinists 751, a rallying point for union activists. “We can do this. Let the people vote them into a 401(k).”

Fine, but my worry is: Then who will defend the retirements of, say, teachers?

This is how you get a crab pot society. Drag them down, one at a time.

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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