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Boeing set to consolidate 787 assembly in South Carolina

Boeing 787 Dreamliners go through preparations for customer approval at the company's facility in North Charleston, S.C., in 2017. A Wall Street Journal report says the company plans to consolidate Dreamliner assembly in South Carolina.
Mic Smith
The Associated Press (file)
Boeing 787 Dreamliners go through preparations for customer approval at the company's facility in North Charleston, S.C., in 2017. A Wall Street Journal report says the company plans to consolidate Dreamliner assembly in South Carolina.

Boeing confirmed Thursday that it will consolidate 787 Dreamliner assembly in South Carolina, eliminating hundreds of jobs at the company’s Everett plant.

The Wall Street Journal reported the news first late Tuesday, citing unnamed sources familiar with the matter.

Union officials and Gov. Jay Inslee have called this move a betrayal and an insult to the workforce. Officials in Snohomish County spoke with reporters in an online press conference Thursday and took a more conciliatory tone.

Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin says it is a purely economic decision, brought on by the COVID-19 crisis. She says it’s not right to claim that Boeing is leaving Everett or leaving Washington state.

“We are devastated to hear that this line is leaving, but we remain the largest manufacturing plant in the world, we have the largest number of aerospace jobs here in Everett, and we will work to grow them back to the levels that we would like to see,” Franklin said.

Boeing, which employs about 30,000 people in Everett, shares 787 production with the company's plant in North Charleston, South Carolina. The consolidation will result in a reduction of 900 jobs in Everett.

Franklin says it’s not in Boeing's economic interest to leave its largest production facility partly empty. The company expects the aerospace sector to remain weak for the next four or five years.

In the meantime, Franklin and Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers have pledged to invest in retraining the workforce. They say they want to be ready to become the production site for Boeing’s next airplane program, whatever it is.

“We’re going to continue to make investments in workforce development, we’ll look for opportunities to diversify,” Somers said. “We’ll continue to make Paine Field a great place for the Boeing Company to do business and manufacturing aircraft. And we look forward to the future with the Boeing Company in Snohomish County.”

Earlier this week, Somers said he was "deeply disappointed" by the news. He and other local officials embarked on a campaign this summer to keep 787 production in Everett called "Better With Boeing."

Boeing first announced in July it was considering consolidation, as the coronavirus pandemic put a dent in demand and production for airplanes.

"COVID-19 has pushed our economy into unwelcome and uncharted territory, and this is another blow," Somers said in a statement Wednesday. The executive says the county will advocate for Boeing to restart 787 assembly in Everett as sales return.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers represents tens of thousands of Boeing employees in Washington. Local president Jon Holden released a statement Thursday condemning the decision. 

"(T)his is the wrong decision and just another in a string of bad decisions Boeing has made that fails to capitalize on the strengths of our workforce," Holden said in the statement, on behalf of the union. "Boeing leaders discount the efficiency, quality and productivity of our Puget Sound workforce."

Holden told KNKX earlier this month the union fought to bring the 787 to Everett in 2003 and then again to keep production here in 2009. "These jobs help our members remain in the middle class, but they also support other jobs in the community," Holden said at the time. 

Jon Ostrower, editor-in-chief of The Air Current, told KNKX in an interview Thursday that the move was ‘inevitable,’ after the company made a decision back in 2008-09 to buy space in South Carolina.

Boeing's workers in South Carolina are not unionized.

Franklin, Everett’s mayor, says she's bracing for a lot of difficult conversations with her community.

“Boeing’s part of the fabric of our community,” Franklin said. “There’s not a family, a resident that doesn’t somehow have a connection back to the Boeing Company.”

That’s true in her family. Franklin’s father-in-law worked for Boeing his whole career.

Other state officials reacted strongly to the news this week. U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, called the move "shortsighted and misplaced."

"The Pacific Northwest is home to the best aviation and aerospace workforce in the world," Larsen said in a statement. "As the economy comes back and air travel returns, I will fight to bring 787 production back to Everett." Larsen chairs the aviation subcommittee on the House's transportation and infrastructure committee.

Gov. Inslee says he will push Boeing to bring jobs back to the state when the market rebounds.

“This market will rebound. People will fly. People will buy the 787, which is a tremendous airplane,” he said during a news conference Thursday. “And we will continue to push for that, that when this market rebounds so should the jobs.”

Inslee also says he will have conversations with lawmakers and the public in coming weeks about the company’s favorable tax treatment in Washington. He says any decisions related to that would be included in the next state budget.

Boeing still receives $15 million in sales tax exemptions each year. In April, the company requested that a $91 million business-and-occupation tax break be suspended.

Boeing retirees also responded with disappointment. Stan Sorscher is a former Boeing engineer who then worked for the engineers union until retiring. He says the company has long cultivated a fear among employees by playing different locations off of each other and using that as leverage in union negotiations.

“They don’t have to take your job today. They threaten you all the time,” Sorscher said. “That’s the message of this — we took the crown jewel, the airplane of the future, out of your hands and you will have legacy programs. Nothing more threatening than that.”

Sorscher has long criticized Boeing for focusing too much on its stock price and Wall Street and not enough on employees and thinking big about new airplane programs. He says the move to consolidate the 787 in South Carolina indicates a cost-cutting mentality that is intended to assuage investors.

The company's local presence has already seen a reduced workforce this year. Ivan Gale, a spokesman for Boeing, said in an email Wednesday that about 12,600 Washington state Boeing employees were laid off earlier in 2020 — a number that includes voluntary and involuntary layoffs.

“This is an extremely difficult time for our teams and our employees,” Gale wrote in the email. “To support employees leaving the company, we will provide severance pay, COBRA health care coverage and career transition services.”

Boeing started building the plane in Everett in 2007, and opened the North Charleston, South Carolina, plant in 2010.

KNKX's Simone Alicea, Ashley Gross, Ed Ronco, Bellamy Pailthorp, Rebekah Way and Kari Plog contributed to this report. 

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