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Boeing potential move draws bad blood in Washington

Sanford weighs in on the trash-talking from the Evergreen State

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Gov. Mark Sanford is taking on his first challenge after the summer scandal, addressing some trash-talking from Washington state. It's an all-out effort by bloggers, rank-and-file workers, and even minor political aspirants to belittle South Carolina out of fear that the next Boeing assembly line might have an 843 area code.

In the weeks since Boeing announced it would take over production of fuselages at the former Vought facility next to Charleston International Airport, it seems that all some can talk about in Washington is the Palmetto State's low wages, high unemployment, and perennially challenged educational system.

Hoping to benefit from the prevailing mood, Larry Phillips, a candidate for county executive in King County, Wash., which encompasses the City of Seattle, even made it the focus of a recent campaign ad.

After extolling the "virtues" of his home state, where, he says, "We're changing the way people read books," "We build transit on time and under budget," "We made coffee famous," and "We invested in commercial air travel and the personal computer," he concludes the riff with a pithy, "Let's see South Carolina do that."

Sanford says that the trash-talkers in the Evergreen State are underestimating South Carolina's appeal and the state's commitment to competing for the new assembly line.

"South Carolina last year was fourth in the nation in labor force growth, which points to the fact that a lot of people are moving to South Carolina because they believe in the opportunities that come with living here," Sanford says, noting the state saw a record $4.17 billion in capital investment last year.

Battling Union Forces, Again

At the heart of the current bashfest is something that's largely alien to South Carolinians: A standoff between one of Washington's cornerstone employers —Boeing — and a union — the International Association of Machinists.

Hanging in the balance is the site of a second production line for the 787 Dreamliner, a facility deemed critical to the aerospace giant's effort to ramp up production of the aircraft and salvaging its much-tarnished reputation after multiple delays in getting the aircraft quite literally off the ground.

A decision on the location of that plant is expected by the end of the year. In the meantime, Boeing is pushing for a no-strike deal from the union. The IAM's position is that there's no reason to reopen the current contract, which was signed only last fall — after a two-month work stoppage — and is scheduled to run through 2012.

To paraphrase from one of the scores of editorials that have appeared in Seattle area newspapers, anxiety at Boeing's Seattle operations and throughout the state's aerospace industry is nearing an ear-ringing pitch.

The situation went ballistic last month when Dreamliner General Manager Scott Fancher held a press briefing in Charleston at which he officially unveiled Boeing's logo on the side of its newly acquired fuselage facility.

Fancher said a decision on the new production line will be made soon, and seemed to suggest that Charleston was on the short list of possible non-Washington sites. Boeing has since declined to comment on those remarks.

On his company blog, Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing for Boeing's commercial airplanes division in Seattle, sought to allay fears about a second Charleston facility.

"The answer is that our main priorities on the program right now are to work through the issues regarding the recently announced postponement of the 787's first flight and to implement the flight test program," Tinseth wrote. "After that, we will address the move toward production ramp up."

In the meantime, a worker at the North Charleston site filed a petition to decertify the union at the plant. In October 2007, workers at the then-Vought Aircraft facility voted narrowly in favor of representation by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

If a vote on that petition comes to pass — and the union loses — organized workers at Boeing's Everett, Wash., production facility would then be competing with non-union workers in South Carolina.

The union, which represents more than 150,000 aerospace workers throughout the country, would strongly oppose any effort to pit one state against another, says Machinist Union spokesman Robert Wood.

"A manipulated competition over which state can provide the largest tax incentives and the lowest labor costs does a disservice to workers and taxpayers in both states," he says.

Moving Target

Economic development types in Washington have been feeling somewhat skittish about Boeing ever since $63 million in state and local incentives lured the company's headquarters from Seattle to Chicago in 2001.

But the company has also repeatedly embraced the workers in Everett, starting with its decision to build its 747 there in 1966. Since then Boeing has launched two additional assembly line projects there, one for the 777 and the other for the 787 Dreamliner.

Among the factors the company says influenced its choice of Everett at that time were collaborative economic development efforts that focused on providing direct incentives to the company, and what at the time was seen as Washington state's renewed, business- friendly climate. Everett was also close to a round-the-clock port, available infrastructure to accommodate suppliers nearby, training partnership opportunities, and the more elusively defined "community support."

It's also worth noting that around the same time, the Washington state legislature committed $4.2 billion in infrastructure improvements.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey won't enter the trash-talking, but he notes Boeing bought the local Vought plant, "knowing that we had a great workforce, a great work ethic."

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