The Boeing tanker slapdown

The state's congressional delegation and others are shocked that we're shipping defense jobs overseas to Airbus. But isn't that the free trade they're always touting?
Crosscut archive image.

A Boeing KC-767, one of two tankers scheduled for delivery to Japan, prepares to transfer fuel to an F-15E1 over the skies of Missouri. (Boeing)

The state's congressional delegation and others are shocked that we're shipping defense jobs overseas to Airbus. But isn't that the free trade they're always touting?

Back in 2002, when Boeing was in the process of blowing off its hometown to move to Chicago, Boeing Commercial Airplanes president and CEO Alan Mulally was quoted in The Seattle Times: "Nobody can guarantee jobs and security in market-based economies." The Pentagon's decision to grant a $40 billion aerial-refueling tanker contract to a consortium other than Boeing, including, adding insult to injury, the parent of Airbus, puts an exclamation point on that statement with an "ouch."

Boeing has been strong-arming workers, suppliers and Washington taxpayers, using the big stick of globalization and free markets, for years. Now a former ally, the U.S. Defense Department, has hit back. If globalization is good, then why not buy military gear from overseas companies? Remaining loyal to U.S. companies is anti-free market, right? It's for suckers in the new global economy.

Our congressional delegation is shocked at this turn of events. In a joint statement, they said: "We are outraged that this decision taps European Airbus and its foreign workers to provide a tanker to our American military. This is a blow to the American aerospace industry, American workers and America's men and women in uniform." This the same delegation that is gaga over free trade. This is the delegation that – along with the state's governors and legislative leadership – has consistently rewarded Boeing with loyalty and benefits while the company has been strip-mining local goodwill, outsourcing jobs, and demanding to be rewarded at every turn.

Globalization goes wrong and now they wave the flag?

A few years ago, Boeing said remaining local was foolish and moved to Chicago. Boeing beat up its unions and shipped jobs to Japan and China. It demanded billions in benefits from state taxpayers for Washington to have the privilege of keeping assembly of the 787 Dreamliner in Everett. At the time, Boeing CEO Phil Condit said, essentially, they were no longer a local aircraft manufacturing company: "We are an assembler, an integrator." Boeing planes, in essence, were no longer made in Washington, not even America, really. We just snap them together. How's that for a domestic aerospace industry?

It's not clear why Boeing didn't get the tanker contract: Maybe the process was flawed, maybe Airbus makes better planes. But the company has a long track record of fouling the nest, including being caught corrupting the previous tanker procurement process. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, now running for president, in what might have been his finest hour, helped shoot the deal down, calling it "one of the great rip-offs in American history." A rip-off supported by our delegation of enablers, by the way. The Pentagon has said that scandal wasn't a factor, but if the process hadn't been corrupt in the first place, and if the previous deal for the taxpayers had been fair, maybe it wouldn't have come to this.

The Boeing workers who face a questionable future are right to complain loudly. It is a blow, and they've felt many. The unions have fought outsourcing, the unions have seen jobs lost, the union members have felt the pinch and lived under a cloud of whether Boeing will stay with them. Already, the company has said that it might want more tax-breaks and benefits before considering making its next plane here. They still might move to some job-hungry southern state if they get the right deal. But if the workers are going to be angry at the Pentagon, they ought to save a little rage for their bosses and a political establishment that has been cheerleading trade practices that are coming back to bite us.

I am not a believer in unfettered "free" trade, because it isn't free for Americans. I think protection ought to go both ways. I think companies like Boeing owe the communities they live in more loyalty and more commitment than the pay they put into people's pockets. Workers earn those checks, and the trickle down taxes are part of the price of citizenship. Globalized "free" trade is a scheme to have it both ways: none of the costs of loyalty, but all the benefits of making fearful communities pay dearly for the crumbs you leave them.

I agree that keeping manufacturing jobs and capacity in America should be a top priority – but such claims ring awfully hollow coming from the mouths of politicians who won't hold Boeing accountable and continue to enable its bad behavior.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.