Thursday, January 5. 2012
Boeing announced that they're closing what's left of their Wichita plant. That means laying off 2,160 workers, and not fulfilling any of the promises they've made to Kansas politicos over the last decade while pursuing the great $35 billion tanker scam. The Boeing plant dates back to 1927 when it was Stearman Aviation. The plant greatly expanded during World War II, mostly at government expense, when employment swelled to over 50,000 and Wichita built the B-29s that won the war against Japan, and into the 1950s the B-47s and B-52s that pounded Korea and Vietnam (and still occasionally fly over Afghanistan).
My father worked at Boeing for 38 years, and my brother worked there for 23 years. In my father's day Boeing had several large plants in Washington plus the one in Wichita: all were unionized and the IAMAW negotiated nationwide, so Boeing's workers caught a break in Wichita. Nowadays it seems like they have hundreds of plants. The company isn't much good at building aircraft any more, but they do big business in auctioning off plants to cities and states eager to pay to have their citizens exploited. In 2005, Boeing spun several properties, including most of their Wichita plant, off in a private equity deal to create Spirit Aerosystems, reducing their Kansas employment from 15,000 to 4,500, and they cut more than half of that in the six years since.
It's not that Wichita and Kansas haven't been willing to cut Boeing hundreds of millions of dollars in loans and abatements and other favors, nor that the local politicians ever hesitated to ply their influence for Boeing's benefit -- the tanker scam is only the grossest example. It may be the unions: before Boeing carved up their plant in 2005 SPEEA had organized the office workers, giving the Wichita plant (in right-to-work KS) the highest percentage union representation of any Boeing plant. That's no longer true, but Boeing still claims it costs 70% more to do work in Wichita than in San Antonio, where they have a non-union workforce in a fresh government-built plant. Wichita workers aren't used to thinking of themselves as overpaid, but Boeing has no scruples when it comes to screwing over their workers.
I skipped over the ones searching for reaction from Kansas politicians. About all they had to say was that they were sad or sorry. In the 1940s the government built McConnell Air Force Base across Oliver Street from the plant they built for Boeing. The two have always had a symbiotic relationship. The reason the Air Force still flies 1950s-vintage aircraft like B-52s and KC-135s is that they've been periodically flown into McConnell and rebuilt by Boeing -- in fact, the KC-135 tankers are based here, even though they're mostly used to support fighters in Asia. Take Boeing away and there's no need for McConnell.
For some reason no one noticed how vulnerable McConnell would be once the KC-135s were replaced. Now if those same politicians are finally moved to salvage some jobs here, they'll do whatever they can to kill the new tankers. They never were a good idea, but now for Kansas at least the jobs excuse works against them.
I sent the following squib to the Eagle's Opinion Line:
The Eagle is asking for stories telling them "what impact has Boeing had on you and your family over the decades?" They provided a living for my father, although it's also likely that the leukemia that killed him was rooted in the chemical he was exposed to there. They turned into a nightmare for my brother, firing him for being too pro-union and for being a medical insurance liability. By then they liked to brag that "this isn't your father's Boeing." Indeed, they're not. They haven't just tracked the moral rot of the nation; they've repeatedly been the cutting edge.
UPDATE: One more Boeing article: Boeing misses deliveries target; Airbus beats goal. This just reinforces my argument above that in redirecting its business to maximizing its political clout and using that to extort income and financing from government and profits from workers, Boeing has lost its fundamental competency at building airplanes. It used to be that Boeing would build entire planes in one factory, with a great deal of vertical integration. If the advantages of doing so aren't obvious, look at the accompanying picture, which shows a 787 fuselage being loaded into an even larger airplane to be flown to the final assembly plant. As Boeing added more properties (to gain more political angles), and started to do more subcontracting (mostly to screw their workers, although wide supplier networks also helped build political clout), the manufacturing process became vastly more complex, while Boeing's quality control has declined. You see all this in the 787 program, which is about five years (and counting) behind schedule.
The contrast to Airbus should be instructive. You'd think that Airbus, with its government bureaucratic control forcing work to be spread over multiple countries, and its unions not only pushing labor costs up but effectively co-managing the company, should be much less efficient than Boeing, but at least Airbus can concentrate on actually building planes. And while Boeing is constantly whining about how urgently they have to cut labor costs to remain competitive, Airbus not only pays higher wages, they do so in Euros which are much more expensive than dollars. But in the end the ability to deliver planes makes all the difference.
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