"Nobody can guarantee jobs and security in market-based economies."
—Boeing Commercial Airplanes president and CEO Alan Mulally, Seattle Times, Sept. 15
Now they tell us. For all the chatter about homeland security, there apparently is one kind of security we'll never be able to count on: economic security. While we poise for a new war in Iraq and build fortress America at home, within our borders what's doable diminishes. Social Security? Hah. It won't be there when you retire because it's been sucked into a black hole of wartime expense and lower taxes for the wealthy. Your 401(k)? It may evaporate on Wall Street, or perhaps it's already lining the pockets of some platinum-parachuted CEO. A decent job? Dream on. It's an employer's market, and your union doesn't stand a chance.
As Seattle glides toward becoming the Flint, Mich., of aerospace, it seems a good time to review our status as a company town and ponder where to place our loyalties in light of Mulally's assessment.
It is hard to overestimate the degree to which Boeing has been part of the fabric of this community. Though overshadowed in recent years by the Microsoft boom— a triumph of software over hardware— Microsoft might never have happened here without Boeing. The aerospace giant played a huge role in shaping Seattle, creating the kind of educated, middle-class, tech-friendly community that would nurture Bill Gates and attract the workers Redmond needs to thrive. Boeing helped seed the Silicon Forest—appropriate for a company that itself had roots in the timber business. It was logging that first brought Bill Boeing to Seattle.
Our modern identity has been built around Boeing's company, whether your dad worked there or not. Our expectations were shaped by it. Boeing's jetliners comprised the first Internet—the global connector of every country on Earth with every other. It was the model of things to come. Seattle's 1962 Century 21 Exposition was dubbed "America's Space Age World's Fair," and it was tailored to suit Boeing's marketing needs. The company recruited workers there: Go Northwest, young man, and build the future. That, we imagined, was out among the stars. No one foresaw that the real Space Age would stall at the moon, or devolve to an orbit little higher than space shuttles can fly.
Nor did we imagine that one day, right around the time the 21st century actually arrived, the future would be outsourced. Colonies on Mars? Try factories in China.
Whatever you want to call it, however you want to sugarcoat it, Boeing is ditching Seattle. The Machinists union knows it, which is why the failure of last week's strike vote was devastating: You're damned if you do and double-damned if you don't. The double-damned Machinists can hear the giant sucking sound of jobs going elsewhere, and they know it won't stop with them. Boeing is no longer a local citizen but a global entity with its flight deck in Chicago. Boeing helped build a city that it says it can no longer afford; it created an educated workforce it says it can no longer pay; it inspired in us expectations it can no longer fulfill.
Seattle has benefited from Boeing, no question. But also, this city and state have done everything a body politic could do to keep that company happy. Seattle and Washington have been molded to suit Boeing's needs: a favorable tax system, a commitment to education, cheap power, and cheaply bought politicians. We didn't just send senators from Boeing to Washington, D.C.—we put their governors in Olympia, their mayors in City Hall, and their engineers on our school boards. We gave the company our children and grandchildren—instilled with loyalty—to work their assembly lines and at their drafting tables. We invested heavily in their success, largely because we felt we were them and they were us.
This community couldn't have kissed more Boeing ass if it had Mick Jagger's lips.
Now they tell us that our loyalty was misplaced, because markets rule. This is the bull that corporate America loves to dish out. When it's time to bust a union, lay off workers, ship jobs overseas, shut down factories, or move out of town, they can say "the market made me do it." But oh, how the CEOs love the protections a loyal (or fearful) community gives them: the favorable tax breaks, the hefty subsidies, the investment in expensive infrastructure like schools and roads. There's nothing free about that market for you and me.
The World Trade Organization—the global capitalist tool—recently approved $4 billion in sanctions against the United States by the European Union for giving Boeing and other companies what amount to illegal tax breaks. The WTO is policing the market, and now Boeing is squealing.
How are they going to like it out there in the big bad world with their protections stripped away? How are they going to do when there's no place to go home to, no faithful community offering a safe haven in tough times; no pool of loyal workers ready to give its blood, sweat, and tears when they need them?
Ask a Machinist whose job has flown out of town on a plane he built.