Washington voters later this year will cast ballots that will determine the political balance of power in the Legislature. But arguably the state’s the most important vote of 2014 occurred Friday, when members of Machinists union local No. 751 narrowly approved a revamped contract with Boeing.
The 51 percent approval of a sweetened contract came less than two months after the 32,000-member local rejected Boeing’s original offer by a 2-1 ratio. The new deal doesn’t alter a major point of contention: changing an existing defined-benefit pension, which has become a rarity in the private sector, to a 401(k) retirement plan.
In return for losing a pension, the workers will get to keep their jobs. The vote assures work on the 777X, a new version of Boeing’s widebody 777, whose work in 2012 supported 56,000 direct and secondary jobs and $20 billion in economic activity in Washington, according aerospace advocates. Keeping the 777X should keep those Boeing jobs here for at least a decade and probably longer.
The contract vote came amid back stories that could fill a novel. Boeing had pushed for quick action on the contract back in November, at the same time it had pushed the Legislature into $9 billion in tax breaks through 2040 — reportedly the largest state-tax subsidy granted to a private company in American history. Legislators overwhelmingly obliged.
But the Machinists were more reluctant — and in many cases hostile. They felt rushed into approving a contract extension during an existing contract, always a sticking point for labor. Local union leaders, who felt burned after agreeing to the November ballot, didn’t want a second vote but were overruled by national leaders.
Meanwhile, Boeing openly courted a number of other states — the company heard from two dozen at one point — that were hungry for high-paying manufacturing jobs. Pro-labor state political leaders who had pushed through the legislative action also wanted the contract extension, saying Boeing wasn’t bluffing about moving jobs. History supports their view; after an ill-considered Machinists strike in 2008, Boeing announced it was sending much of its 787 Dreamliner work to South Carolina, a right-to-work state.
Gov. Jay Inslee angered labor allies by calling for a second vote; while he didn’t tell anybody how they should vote, his call for a revote and a laudatory comment after Friday’s approval left little doubt that he supported approval of the contract. The vote was good news for the governor, though it may cost him the active support of some labor constituencies should he seek re-election in 2016.
Workers are always reluctant to lose something that they have in hand; in this case, a pension. They were quick to point out that the company is doing very well financially, and that top Boeing managers at their Chicago headquarters aren’t giving up any of their pensions. But Boeing holds the upper hand economically and politically, and rejecting the contract wouldn’t have changed the managers’ situation at all. By approving the pact, the workers ensured long-term employment, a more stable job market and a more solid fiscal outlook for Washington state — the last item was of crucial concern to political and business leaders in the state.
From a business standpoint, Boeing still has plenty of reason to maintain a strong presence in the state, outside of its nearly century-old roots. Washington offers a skilled, experienced aerospace workforce, infrastructure that serves the company’s extensive manufacturing facilities in Western Washington and very attentive political leaders. The company now has a measure of labor peace. A near-majority of voting Machinists may view this outcome as a defeat, but the rest of the state rightfully sees this as a victory.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.