Seattle sours on promise of global trade

As Boeing leaves, many residents are convinced thousands of jobs will go with it.

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When The Boeing Co. announced that it would leave Seattle - its home for more than 80 years - it was as if a sky full of B-52s had carpet-bombed this city's psyche.

For a long day after the announcement, everyone from Washington's perplexed governor to shell-shocked office workers staggered about spouting impotent rhetoric, demanding to know how "our Boeing" could dare consider relocating to Chicago or Denver or - gasp - Dallas.

Soon, however, confusion and naivete gave way to acceptance and then cynicism, as Seattlites came to terms with what it means to play in the global arena. While many residents of the Emerald City believed in the promise of globalization and free trade - the riots at the 1999 World Trade Organization talks, notwithstanding - this was, for many, the first helping of the highly touted dish. Now, some are wondering if they should send it back.

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By moving company headquarters, Boeing is freeing itself from the "strictures" of corporate citizenship to allow more hard-headed decisionmaking that, Seattle residents believe, ultimately could move thousands of jobs elsewhere.

"When it comes time to make the tough decisions - send work overseas, get rid of union jobs ... it will be easier for them to do, because they won't have to look into the eyes of the people who'll lose out here," says Vandra Huber, professor of human resources at the University of Washington Business School.

Boeing Chairman Phil Condit insists the move is not a slap at Seattle, where at least four generations have built the company into an aerospace giant. He says the move is simply a stage in Boeing's evolution, a tactic designed to take better advantage of global opportunities.

Despite assurances that it had no plans to phase out its 78,400 jobs in the Puget Sound Basin, the company declared Friday that it would move construction of 757 fuselages from Renton to Wichita, Kan. - moving about 500 jobs from here to there.

Some residents believe this is only the beginning. The decision to move corporate headquarters "is not just because of Boeing's labor unions and their strikes," says Margaret Levi, a political scientist at the University of Washington. "They're going to move work overseas. They're going to move work to the South, where unions aren't as strong. It's part of globalization."

Many here are comparing Boeing's tack to General Electric Co.'s successful sortie into the global marketplace. GE also isolated its headquarters from the cities where it manufactures its products. CEO Jack Welch proclaimed, "Ideally, you'd have every plant you own on a barge."

GE has moved jobs from state to state and country to country in search of lower wages and favorable regulations. It has closed plants in US cities, including Providence, R.I., Fitchburg, Mass., Memphis, Tenn. and Rome, Ga. Critics charge that the company's biggest export is now jobs - maybe as many as 100,000 sent overseas - but GE, and now Boeing, say their new strategy is necessary to attain their No. 1 goal: increasing the value of their stock. (At a stockholder's meeting last year, Boeing announced that shareholder value was the company's new priority.)

While the trend may be good for companies and investors, it also signals a further move away from a time when cities and local businesses prospered together in good times and helped each other through downturns.

"It's hard to imagine a more symbiotic relationship than Boeing and Seattle," says George Rolfe, professor of urban planning at UW. "The two have been intertwined, culturally and economically, for decades."

Since 1916, in fact, when

William Boeing used a real-estate fortune to start his small aviation company - now a global behemoth.

Yet while Boeing swallowed its last North American competitor, McDonnell-Douglas, in 1997, some believe that company's shareholder-oriented culture has ultimately triumphed. It meshed with Wall Street's demands in an era of free trade - more so than the "one big family" culture that had been Boeing's way.

This alienated Boeing employees and led to last year's historic strike by its engineering and technical professionals - a walkout that experts say was a factor in last week's announcement.

Now, Boeing's disappearing act has almost everyone here asking questions that have no immediate answers:

Can Boeing's unions resist the company if it decides to build airplane wings in Mexico or Japan? How long will an absentee Boeing give generously to the symphony, the opera, the art museum, and United Way? Is losing Boeing, and all it provides this community, worth whatever benefits free trade may deliver?

"I'd have to say that I'm a little bit demoralized by it," says Kevin Castle, a lifelong resident. "My main reaction to it is, 'Well, this is the Brave New World we're entering, where business can do whatever it wants, and regular people have no power to stop it.' "

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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