Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Boeing Hostage Crisis: The Problem and a Solution

        The day starts out much like any other. Children scurry about while their parents try to corral them up for school. Mothers sweep well-worn floors and fathers wipe the sleep out of their eyes before stepping outside, perhaps to go to work or maybe just to get away from their wife’s sweeping. It is already warm, and the laughter of children can be heard as they walk to school. Overhead the sun, a vast crimson stain, begins its long climb to the top, a journey it makes every day charting its slow, ponderous path. 

        But today is not just any other day. A thin buzzing noise can be heard from off in the distance. It gets louder and louder until it thunders with emphatic clarity. The sound of glass and metal being promiscuously twisted together is heard, the buzzing’s terrible climax. A woman screams before being joined by the cries of others. As a helicopter flies off into the distance, the villagers frantically dig for the bodies below, whose soft groans can be heard above the rubble. A finger there, a foot here; part of a corpse hangs from a tree, set there by the force of a Hellfire missile. 

        There will be no school today. Brooms will be left leaning, and it is doubtful that anyone will be going to work. Before life resumes bodies will have to be accounted for, funerals planned, and people – what is left of them – taken to the hospital. And though life will resume, as it inevitably does, it will never be the same. There will be scars. Scars etched into bodies corrupted with steel and lead; scars that pockmark the earth, now cursed with the blood of humanity; and scars that cannot be seen, scars that are only felt – and then, keenly – by the absence of others.

         Half-way around the world, the day begins. Coats are being buttoned and scarves shirked as children try to convince their parents to not add another layer. In their hurry to make the bus, some have forgotten their lunchboxes. Others have done so intentionally: the last thing they want is another PB and J sandwich. 

        Back at home, the parents leaf through the newspaper. An article in the middle of the “Business” pages locks their attention, even before the coffee has taken effect. Anxious, they put down the cup and grip the pages with both hands. A quick swelling sensation begins to prick the bottom of their stomachs, like a heated iron; it is a feeling that has become increasingly common. They will not be able to drink any more coffee today, but, then again, they will not need it. In bold print the paper says that the company they work for is threatening to leave the region unless workers surrender their retirement benefits and the government grants it a big tax break. The article explains: “If Boeing doesn’t get what it wants from lawmakers and its workers by Wednesday, the giant airplane manufacturer vows to ‘pursue other options for locating… work’”. 

         At first they only feel anger but soon a sense of despair seeps in. After all, what can they do? The past few years have been “difficult” enough. One of the cars had to be returned because its payments could not be kept up. And what about the house? Where will they go if they cannot make the mortgage payments? The vacant lots across the street… At work they have been talking about hard times because of the Recession, but you saw the third quarter earnings… But there is not enough time to think. Both parents don their uniforms and walk to the car. It is time to go to work. A thin buzzing noise, one of tension and weariness, undulates in the back of their minds. So off to work they go, to the business which is seeking “Forever New Frontiers”.
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        Political action matters because it is a form of human action. And like all forms of human action, its effects resonate beyond their immediate implications. Here in the Pacific Northwest, politics have been getting heated for some time. Boeing, one of the region’s largest employers, is threatening to export its work elsewhere unless the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers agrees to dramatic cuts in benefits, including the scrapping of workers’ retirement plans. But this dispute is not just another of the perennial battles between capital and labor. For as Boeing threatens to destroy the livelihood of its employees, it is also holding a gun to the head of the Washington State Legislature: unless it gets “some $8.7 billion dollars in tax breaks and other goodies” from the government, it will bleed itself of its own workers, not because it has to but because it can. In other situations people call this “blackmail” or “terrorism.” Here it is called “economics” and “business as usual.” 

        Ironically, only a company as rich and powerful as Boeing could strong-arm the legislature into holding a session special to “save” it from leaving the region – that is, on its own accord. In fact, the corporation is negotiating from a position of power, not because it is actually under water or even close to being so. Instead, it is on the offensive and taking no prisoners – not even among those who make the company possible, its workers. An October 2013 article in ‘The New York Times’ explains that the company is rolling in dough, as a “surge in sales of commercial jets… [topped] analysts’ expectations for an eighth consecutive quarter,” and “Boeing again raised its profit forecast for 2013”. A quick recovery from the effects of the Great Recession and high demand for fuel-efficient jets has made Boeing not only a stable company, but a highly profitable one.       
        Even so, its leadership feels the sadistic compulsion to discipline its workers, to force them to tighten their belts and prepare for an artificial period of scarcity. ‘The Oregonian’ reports that the contract which Boeing is imposing on its workers would “replace workers’ defined-benefit pension plans with a 401(k)-style, defined-contribution plan.” Moreover, the “contract provides wage increases of only 1 percent every other year. It would lock in a wage structure that would see new hires take as long as 16 years, instead of the current six years, to reach the top pay scale.” 

        What does all this mean? By moving to a “401(k)-style, defined contribution” retirement plan, the company would place the onus of retirement savings on its workers by shedding its existing obligations. Put less clinically, they are scrapping workers’ retirement plans for a much scrawnier, watered down ersatz. Their putative “plan” is essentially to have workers take care of the retirement themselves while throwing in a miserly “contribution” – “defined” so as to not be too generous – and call it good. What is offered is nothing more than a skeleton of a “plan” created for nothing more than the right to claim that a plan exists. 

        The motives behind the other measures – better termed, punishments – are more obvious. By putting a low ceiling on wage increases and devising a work hierarchy that is difficult to climb, Boeing will erode the wages of its workers over time, extracting greater profits by taking them out of the paychecks of the very people who make its profits possible. Not everyone will feel the blow, though. CEO Jim McNerney will almost certainly be awarded a sumptuous raise this year, just as he was “compensated” for his Spartan sensibility with a cool $22.1 million dollars last year. The Board was quick to explain that his raise was well-deserved, due to his “effective leadership and successful implementation of Boeing’s business strategies” – the substance of which we have already covered. 

        Let’s be honest. Boeing is one of the wealthiest corporations in the region and not suffering from any financial difficulties. Despite these facts, its executives have chosen to short-change workers. The reason: they want more money for themselves and their shareholders. When deconstructing the situation what one finds is absolutely distasteful. The supposedly visionary “leadership” of McNerney and his partners in crime is nothing more than a scheme to take from the vulnerable to pad the rich. Let us examine these contradictions, though, as they are shared contradictions which lie at the heart of modern economics. 

        For the past hundred years economics has been guided by the principle of “managerial prerogative,” which states that those at the top echelon should have total control over the company’s business model. The workers – those who constitute the productive element of the company – are to have no say over this process. Thus we arrive at that strange beast known as the modern corporation, in which the execs claim that they are working for the “good” of the company while threatening to gut the company of its workforce. Through their own words and actions we see that, for them, the “company” consists of no more than the management (themselves) and shareholders. 

       We are told, in effect, that Boeing does not need, nor consist of, machinists, welders, and mechanics – people who build airplanes – despite the fact that Boeing is, in fact, an airplane manufacturer. These brilliant execs apparently believe that profits are generated by those who count them, rather than through productive labor. If we follow their logic to its necessary conclusion, we reach several novel findings: 

1.  Profit is generated by those who count it rather than through those who earn it via their labor. If we continue this line of argumentation we will also learn that, like Voltaire’s Pangloss, noses exist so that people can wear glasses. 

2. The company leadership is the company itself. They do not preside over it, but, rather constitute the company in its totality. One may then say that they are not “leaders” in the usual sense; there is nothing within the company to “lead” but themselves. Their leadership thus consists of the pursuit of their own hopes and ambitions.

3. When the execs claim that Boeing “creates jobs,” they mean that Boeing creates jobs for those who matter: themselves. Everyone else is redundant, obsolete. After all, the “company” – that is, the leadership – can pick up and move whenever its wants. Indeed, that is precisely what it is doing now. 

        In short, while dissecting the principle of “Managerial prerogative” we find that it makes little sense even when subjected to the most basic laws of reasoning. Indeed, this principle is so course that one might expect to find it in a pre-classical text in which the earth is presumed to be flat. What contradicts it is this simple observation: in order to have a company one must first have workers. To attack the good of the workers is to attack the good of the company itself, since it is the workers who ultimately compose it. And because it is the workers who engage in the day-to-day life of the company, to reject a priori their ideas about how the company should run is both short-sighted and unfair. It is also plain stupid. 
        But there is more to the Boeing hostage crisis than workers, the state, and a nasty clique of businessman. While Boeing extracts “profits” by skimming workers’ paychecks, it also accumulates wealth by murdering people across the globe. A significant part of the corporation is dedicated to the production of military hardware which is sold to some of the worst human rights violators in the world. It is known, for example, that Boeing sells missiles and other armaments to the Israeli army, which has in turn used them to murder Lebanese and Palestinian civilians who live across Israel’s border. I suppose, however, that this is just another part of Boeing’s “effective” business model.

       And Boeing is not unique is this regard. Corporations like Caterpillar, Motorola and Lockheed Martin have long supplied the tools that make Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine possible – and profited handsomely from doing so. However, if “managerial prerogative” were replaced by more participatory forms of decision-making then these business practices would probably be less common. Worker participation would make business more transparent, and prevent a small group of execs from making political decisions – which kill thousands – under the guise of “business as usual.” And if profiting from war, rapine and murder is “business as usual,” as so many elites are quick to interject, then it most certainly should be done away with. 
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        So what is to be done about Boeing? I do not know. I do know, however, that “business as usual” does not work. I also know of a few people who surely have an idea or two in mind: the workers. Why not ask them? 



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