Boeing flies south; hopefully folks down there can take a joke


David Horsey, the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist for SeattlePI.com, noted the other day:

David Horsey, SeattlePI.com, November 6, 2009I doubt if I have ever drawn a cartoon that didn’t upset somebody. It goes with the territory. In fact, some would say it’s part of the job description.

I’ve grown a pretty thick layer of teflon. The daily messages I get telling me I’m an idiot, a shill, a talentless drone and a hack pretty much bounce right off. Sometimes, sick as it may seem, I actually enjoy making people mad.

Apparently, I did that pretty successfully a few days ago with a cartoon that poked fun at the good people of South Carolina. On Wednesday, I got a call from a reporter at a Fox TV news affiliate in the Palmetto State. He asked me what I thought about the controversy my cartoon had stirred up. I had to ask him, “What controversy?” The reporter explained that my image of some non-union South Carolinian Boeing workers surrounded by various symbols of the Bad Old South was not getting many laughs in his part of the world.

The cartoon is something of a doozy, and definitely seems to constitute some form of “fightin’ words”, but this whole Boeing fracas has people’s sensitivities raw.

In the days that followed, I received numerous e-mails that made the displeasure clear. One, from someone who identified himself as a proud descendant of Confederate soldiers, said simply, “Oh, you poor ignorant bigot.” Another called the cartoon “racist,” although I’m not sure how that term could be stretched quite that far. A longer, impassioned missive came from Father Titus Fulcher, the pastor of the Charleston Melkite Greek Catholic Community. Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

    As a ten year resident of the greater Charleston metropolitan area, I am deeply hurt and disappointed by your cartoon depicting five “non-union South Carolina workers” in a most offensive style and arrangement (the hound dog, Confederate Flag, Moonshine Still and hangman’s noose). It is understandable that the good people of Seattle would be disappointed at Boeing’s decision to build its plant in South Carolina versus Washington State; however, the projection of grossly inappropriate, bigoted and stereotypical images could seemingly only serve one purpose – to cater to a prejudicial view of “Southerners” as ignorant and racist lowlifes.

Father Fulcher concluded with a question: “And does not every State have in its past things it has long since abandoned as inappropriate?

Horsey is generally gracious on this point—to a fault. Sure, we finally had to get around to writing a law against banging horses a few years ago, but it’s apparently a recent problem up here. And it’s not like South Carolina has been obnoxious in recent years. And it’s not like people in the Palmetto State cling to the shameful elements of their past with pride; as Borgna Brunner noted nine years ago:

On April 12, 2000, the South Carolina state senate finally passed a bill to remove the flag by a majority of 36-7. The bill specified that a more traditional version of the battle flag (square shaped as opposed to the rectangular flag now flying above the statehouse) would be flown in front of the Capitol next to a monument honoring fallen Confederate soldiers. The bill then went to the House, where it encountered some difficulty. But on May 18, 2000, after the bill was modified to ensure that the height of the flag’s new pole would be 30 feet, it was passed by a majority of 66 to 43, and Governor Jim Hodges signed the bill five days later. On July 1, the flag was removed from the South Carolina statehouse.

But Horsey isn’t the only northwest voice to ruffle gamecock feathers down south. Local economics professor and Boeing scholar, T. M. Sell, wrote last month:

Here’s what I’ve learned from the whole misadventure:

First, McBoeing’s board of directors remains rather short-sighted.

Next, some people in South Carolina are a bit insecure. In a TV interview Wednesday I said that Boeing was essentially assigning production of its most technologically advanced jetliner to “the functional equivalent of Wal-Mart greeters.” Some folks down there took that personally, judging by the e-mails I’m getting. They needn’t have. I don’t have anything against South Carolina or its people; I was talking about the relative wages that will be paid.

Boeing will pay workers around $14 an hour to a do job that pays more than $26 here. Think about your job: If they cut the pay for your position by almost half, what level of talent would your employer attract? As it turns out, the starting machinist’s wage here for a comparable position is only $15; the $26-an-hour figure is for someone with 20 years of experience.

Sell suggests the logic of the Boeing move is no logic at all. And this puts the offended Carolinians in a difficult position. Sure, they’re upset that a cartoonist or an econ professor might crack a joke that everyone else will forget about in a week, but they don’t seem particularly disturbed by the joke Boeing is carrying out against the people of that state. After lambasting Boeing management and its faction of former McDonnell-Douglas directors—an assessment the engineers I know at Boeing would agree with:

And it is, to some extent, McDD holdovers on the board who have brought in the General Electric style of management, in which workers are interchangeable parts of no particular value. They let Alan Mulally escape to rescue Ford without federal bail-out dollars, and brought in Jim NcNerney. This is now a company with a short-term focus in a long-term business. They’re about to spend around $900 million to save $9 million a year in labor costs. Condit, who was plenty smart, should have smelled a lemon and walked away when McDonnell Douglas offered itself up for sale. Boeing hasn’t been the same since.

Don’t blame the unions. McBoeing clearly had no interest in negotiating, only using the machinists to pry a better deal out of South Carolina. The union offered what Boeing wanted, but asked for something in return.

Don’t blame state government, unless you think Washington can become a state with taxes so low we have to be bailed out by the feds. Because that’s where South Carolina is. Its unemployment taxes (a frequent complaint of McBoeing’s with regard to Washington) are so low that their unemployment fund went bankrupt last year, and had to be bailed out by the feds.

The final irony here is that your federal tax dollars are effectively subsidizing McBoeing’s move to South Carolina.

The people of South Carolina need to wake up and recognize that Boeing favors them because the company views them as a bunch of dumb-assed hicks. I know people in catering up here that make better money than a Boeing machinist in South Carolina. So ask yourself that basic question: What is more important to me? That my coffee isn’t slightly bitter at the conference center, or that the plane won’t crash when I fly home?

Boeing simply wants its money. There is no real integration anymore between the company and the communities surrounding its operations. Washington state won’t utterly destroy its revenue structure in order to make Boeing’s directors happy. Indeed, the general outlook is that we cannot afford to. South Carolina, on the other hand? They’re already in the kind of mess Boeing likes. They’ll take what they can get, on whatever terms demanded.

And that’s the thing: Boeing is spending a tremendous amount of money to save—under the best conditions—very, very little. Indeed, it will be decades before the labor savings recoup the transitional expenses. They’re headed south because they just can’t treat people up here like shit anymore. And that only compounds the gamecock joke: these people are happy to be exploited. It’s tragic.

I hope they do well down there. I hope they find success. Because the alternative is wishing for Dreamliners to fall out of the sky left and right, and that would qualify as absurd bitterness.

So, yes. We’re all sorry that we’re chuckling at South Carolina. But we’ll abandon that apology at your first labor action down there. And then we’ll laugh anew, reminding that South Carolina wanted so badly to make deals with the Devil that it whored itself and its people to a giant industrial monster that views its employees and local citizens as nothing more than fodder for its great mechanical beasts.

Boeing is leaving us. Slowly. Painfully. We must get used to this fact and move on with life.

Boeing is coming to South Carolina. Slowly. Painfully. They must learn to enjoy it.

Congratulations, South Carolina. And get over yourselves; you’ve got a lot more coming your way to worry about than a local cartoonist or econ professor cracking the obvious jokes.

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