Seattle Frets as Boeing Looks South for Sites
Aircraft Maker's Search for a New Dreamliner Assembly Plant Poses a Threat to Big Machinists Union a
SEATTLE -- The 787 Dreamliner, Boeing Co.'s marquee project, is about two years behind schedule, but another big worry has emerged: Is the company expanding in the South, where unions are weaker, instead of here?
Boeing, the area's largest employer, has said in recent weeks that it would likely choose a site for a second 787 assembly line, possibly in South Carolina, by the end of the year. The current assembly line is in Everett, Wash., 30 minutes north of Seattle.
The prospect of a second site outside the state of Washington has spread anxiety throughout the state's aerospace industry. Boeing's largest union is galvanizing against the plan.
"Obviously, it would be a blow to the region if they go elsewhere," said Connie Kelliher, spokeswoman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers local union, which represents about 25,000 Boeing machinists in Washington.
Boeing's decadelong reliance on Seattle as its major manufacturing hub for commercial aircraft has allowed the union to retain its muscle, even as unions in sectors from steel to textiles have seen their power wane amid low-cost competition from Asia.
But the myriad problems associated with Boeing's 787, considered the most sophisticated commercial plane ever designed, have suddenly handed the company an opportunity to cut some ties with the union.
Design issues and difficulties in coordinating the 787's hundreds of suppliers have created massive delays for the new plane. Last fall, the machinists union -- partly because it was upset Boeing had farmed out significant parts of the 787 construction to contractors -- staged a debilitating 57-day strike at factories around Seattle. That set the project back even further. It was the union's fourth strike in 20 years.
Boeing is considering a second assembly site for the 787 in part because it must ramp up production to make up for the repeated delays. Some Southern states, where Boeing is said to be looking, are right-to-work states, which don't require employees to join a union if one exists at a company.
Last week, 400 people gathered in a convention center in Lynnwood, a suburb of Seattle, to listen to politicians and industry officials air their concerns about the prospect of Boeing establishing a commercial aircraft beachhead outside the state. "The industry brings in tens of thousands of jobs and serves as a magnet to draw in other aviation-related employers to the region," Michael Zubovic, chairman of the Aerospace Futures Alliance in Washington, said at last week's conference. "We're going to have to work hard to preserve our leadership position in this industry."
On the same day, Boeing's head of the 787 program, Scott Fancher, was in North Charleston, S.C., where Boeing recently acquired a factory from one of its Dreamliner suppliers, Vought Aircraft Industries Inc. The supplier was a struggling link in the 787 supply chain, and last month Boeing said it would pay nearly $1 billion to purchase the operation from Vought and convert it into a Boeing facility. Boeing could choose to build the second Dreamliner assembly site at that location.
Mr. Fancher told a local newspaper that Boeing was looking at sites in both Washington and South Carolina to house a new final assembly plant for its 787. Industry observers say the company is also looking at sites in Texas and elsewhere in the South. A Boeing spokeswoman said she couldn't confirm or deny that the additional sites were being considered.
Since 1916, when William Boeing launched his first seaplane in Seattle's Lake Union, the region has been the backbone of the nation's commercial airplane industry. Today, Boeing employs 74,000 people in Washington and is a major economic driver in the region.
But Boeing has been gradually creeping away from its Seattle roots. Its defense business is based near St. Louis, and in 2001 the company moved its headquarters to an office building in Chicago, in part to reshape its image away from primarily a commercial airplane company.
"We were once a Puget Sound-based company with customers all over the world," Fred Kiga, Boeing's vice president of state and local government relations, said last week at the aerospace conference. "Boeing today is a global company competing in a global marketplace."
But he said there is "an opportunity for conversation" with the machinists union. He added: "Let's not be lulled into thinking the future of our state's aerospace industry is simply a question of labor and management." He said Washington state, too, must keep itself competitive as other states try to lure Boeing's business away.