Home World Business In the world’s biggest building, Boeing workers wait for Trump’s promised jobs

In the world’s biggest building, Boeing workers wait for Trump’s promised jobs

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There would have been a few raised eyebrows in Melbourne earlier this year when US President Donald Trump launched Boeing’s new 787-10 Dreamliner and declared it a triumph of American manufacturing.

“We’re here today to celebrate American engineering and American manufacturing,” he told a crowd of 5000 cheering Boeing workers at its plant in South Carolina.  

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“This plane, as you know, was built right here,” he continued. 

“We want products made by our workers, in our factories, stamped with those four magnificent words: Made in the USA.”

President Donald Trump launching the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner in February. President Donald Trump launching the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner in February.  Photo: AP

What the President didn’t says was that Boeing’s newest aircraft is the least American-made in the company’s 101-year history. It has Canadian landing gears, French and Swedish doors, Chinese rudders, Japanese wings, South Korean wing tips and an Italian fuselage.

And its movable trailing edges are shipped to the US all the way from Port Melbourne, where Boeing maintains a 1200-strong workforce.

Trump has said he will use import tariffs and other punitive measures to “bring back” manufacturing jobs to America.

But it’s unclear if Trump will be a blessing or a curse for Boeing, America’s largest exporter, and its more than 134,000 American workers. 

At over 13 million cubic metres, Boeing's Everett factory is the biggest building in the world. At over 13 million cubic metres, Boeing’s Everett factory is the biggest building in the world.  Photo: Mike Kane

“Obviously people want good-paying, middle-income jobs here in America, and a manufacturing base, rather than having jobs sent overseas,” says Brian Butler, a Boeing veteran of 30 years and one of about 40,000 workers at its factory in Everett, Washington.

Cuts still loom

Butler, who installs landing gears on 787s, is no fan of Trump but says his rhetoric on jobs caused a “stir” among many blue-collar colleagues who’ve seen waves of job cuts inside the world’s biggest building

Brian Butler, a Boeing veteran of 30 years, outside the company's factory in Everett, Washington. Brian Butler, a Boeing veteran of 30 years, outside the company’s factory in Everett, Washington. Photo: supplied

“Whether it be the auto industry, manufacturing, aerospace – those are the types of industries that we need to bring back to keep America strong,” he says. 

Boeing cut more than 6000 jobs in Washington in 2016 – about 8 per cent of its workforce in the state – and has signalled similar cuts this year. Another 1500 of Butler’s colleagues have been approved for voluntary redundancies so far in in 2017. 

How about one job that pays well, that I can raise my family and retire from and then pass it on to the next generation?

Todd Christensen

But workers who spoke to Fairfax Media are also wary of Trump’s attitude to labour conditions and fear wages and benefits of working-class Americans could deteriorate under his administration.

New hires on Boeing’s Everett production line start at $15 an hour, according to their union, the International Association of Machinists. 

Jon Holden, president of the International Association of Machinists district 751. The union opposed Trump during the ... Jon Holden, president of the International Association of Machinists district 751. The union opposed Trump during the election, but saw eye to eye with him on jobs and trade.  Photo: Patrick Hatch

Seven eight seven production line worker Joel Hetland, 59, says many new hires work up to 55 hours a week to pull in enough overtime to bring home a living wage.

“If you’ve a family of four and the breadwinner is on $15 an hour, you’re going to get food stamps, and you’re probably going to get government-subsidised housing,” he says. “I know young people at work who live in RVs for god’s sakes.”

Boeing shed about 8 per cent of its workforce in Washington last year. Boeing shed about 8 per cent of its workforce in Washington last year.  Photo: Patrick Hatch

“That’s the kind of work I feel Trump is going to bring in,” adds colleague Todd Christensen, 54, who does the final body join on Boeing’s 747s.

“When he makes a statement that he’s going to bring lots of jobs in – ‘great jobs, everybody’s going to have three jobs’ – well, how about one job that pays well, that I can raise my family and retire from and then pass it on to the next generation?” says Christensen. “But we don’t have that in America any more.”

A Boeing spokesman said the company was among the highest-paying manufacturers in the US and was committed to providing workers with a healthy work-life balance. Overtime was driven by business needs, he said.

‘Counting on it’

The International Association of Machinists opposed Trump during last year’s election. But the union’s Everett district president Jon Holden says they saw eye to eye on a number of issues. 

“I think it was positive to start talking about jobs, jobs that should be back in this country: good middle-class manufacturing jobs,” Holden says. 

“Can he deliver? I hope so. We’re counting on it.”

Holden says he was pleased to see Trump rip up the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the latest in a series that he says have devastated US manufacturing hubs.

Holden says his union understands the importance of international trade, but wants deals that have stronger labour and environmental standards and which don’t leave American workers at a disadvantage.

A bigger issue is whether Trump understands international trade, says aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia. He sees Boeing as almost uniquely dependent on the post-World War II trend towards people, goods and money flowing freely across borders.

“If you arrest that process and reverse it, I don’t know what the impact will be,” Aboulafia says.

Trump’s proposed trade tariffs, which he’s suggested could be as high as 45 per cent for China, would pose an immediate threat to Boeing, which has work spread over 65 countries and sources parts from more than 20,000 suppliers globally.

Aboulafia says Boeing would also be a prime target for retaliation for Trump’s protectionism. Far from bringing jobs back to Boeing, Trump could put them at risk. 

“The most obvious way for China to retaliate would be in jetliners, and they’re 20 per cent of [Boeing’s] market,” Aboulafia says.

Likewise Boeing’s $16.6 billion, 70-jet deal with Iran Air stuck in December could be under threat if Trump turns hawkish with Tehran, he added, while Gulf carriers could turn to Boeing’s European rival Airbus if the President heeds US carriers’ calls to renegotiate their access to the US market. 

A Boeing spokesman said the company has a strong relationship with China, and shares the Trump administration’s view that good relationships with trading partners helps the economy. Boeing is engaged with the White House to encourage policies that would help the company grow, win new business and “add manufacturing capacity in the US”, while continuing to tap into its global supply chain, he said. 

What’s the endgame?

Aboulafia points out an another obstacle to any blue-collar job renaissance under Trump: the fact so much of that work has been rendered obsolete by technology and automation. 

“The problem isn’t globalisation, it’s the multi-axis drilling machine,” he says. 

Union boss Holden and those he represents say they’ve seen the march of the robots “since forever”.

Boeing will soon add more automation to the 777 fuselage line in Everett, which Holden says will eliminate many jobs. But he admits it’s hard to argue against making the factory more efficient.

There’s an ominous precedent being set in Seattle, 40 minutes drive south from his office. E-commerce giant Amazon has just opened its first supermarket, which doesn’t have one checkout operator. Instead items are scanned and customers charged by sensors connecting to their smartphone.

Holden says he’ll never shop at Amazon’s supermarket, out of principle. In a country set to soon have self-driving trucks on its roads and ever more robots running its factories, it raises an existential question.

“What’s the endgame?” Holden says.

“What roles are we going to perform? How do we provide for our family?”

The reporter travelled to Washington courtesy of Qantas and Boeing

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