Sunday, September 13, 2009

Big Questions of the 2009 Session

The other major question that loomed over the 2009 legislative session was whether or not Boeing would begin to move their operations out of state. The previous Fall, Boeing and the Machinists engaged in a strike that cost the company billions of dollars and left workers in the lurch for weeks on end. Boeing's top brass told the Governor and legislative leaders that "Chicago" (company headquarters 'out of state') was considering moving at least some of their operations to South Carolina. They indicated that the bad labor climate and the cost of doing business in Washington was making the state "uncompetitive". The local brass told leaders that they were fighting the move but needed some evidence to convince "Chicago" that things were changing.

There was a lot of talk about this. Mostly negative and quite awful. But again, it came down to one simply question. In the midst of the deepest recession in 28 years, do we risk losing our state's oldest and largest industry? Countless discussions and meetings bantered back and forth as to whether Boeing was just bluffing and trying to extort another billion or so out of the State or whether the threat was real. For the most part the debate was not ideological. It was real. People didn't know the answer.

There was a lot at stake. Labor had been pushing a bill that essentially banned companies from requiring workers to attend meetings on union issues when unions didn't have the same access (that wasn't the on the surface debate but that's what it boiled down to) . Boeing argued that given the recent strike, that if the legislature passed this bill it would be difficult to keep the company here. The unions argued that it was a matter of choice and privacy. In the end, many of the elected officials were simply unwilling to take the risk that Boeing might not be bluffing.

The other issue had to do with unemployment benefits. The legislature had just passed legislation providing a major increase in unemployment benefits to workers as an economic stimulus. Despite the recession the unemployment trust fund was still healthy and business demanded a tax cut as well. Labor was wiling to stay neutral on a tax cut but wanted to reclaim cuts in benefits they endured from previous legislative sessions. The impact of labor's proposal would have been to significantly reduce tax cuts for business. Labor argued that in a recession, spending, not tax cuts was the best stimulus. Business would just sit on the money from the tax cuts. Boeing argued that unemployment costs in Washington were uncompetitive.

In the end, a majority of legislators (perhaps a third of the Democrats and all of the Republicans) again decided they were unwilling to call Boeing's bluff.

Labor has not forgiven legislators or the Governor for backing off of either of their proposals. In the end, we still don't know what the right answer is. Boeing still could move a lot of their operations despite the strong support they received from the legislature in Washington.

A very important side question has to do with Boeing's 747 debacle. Their biggest investment, which the state of Washington plunked down a couple of billion dollars to support, was way behind schedule. They fired the VP for their commercial airlines division last week. But it's also beginning to look more and more like the union and the state business climate could be a another scapegoat for their own outsourcing and management errors.

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