The Boeing Co. broke ground Friday on a $750 million aircraft factory in South Carolina, which will help build the 787 Dreamliner, a new midsized jet that Boeing hopes will set a standard for comfort and fuel efficiency — if the company can get the long-delayed plane off the ground. For Boeing, it's a bold move outside its traditional Pacific Northwest manufacturing base.
Since 1916, when Bill Boeing flew his first wooden float plane, all the company's commercial aircraft have been made in the Puget Sound region around Seattle. That's changing now, as Boeing began construction on its new factory in North Charleston, which has sunnier skies, a decidedly Southern culture, and — perhaps most important to Boeing — a nonunion workforce.
South Carolina dignitaries waved large Boeing flags Friday as a bulldozer took a ceremonial bite out of the sandy soil. The real construction has already begun for a plant projected to employ about 4,000 people. Although South Carolina politicians competed intensely with their counterparts in Washington state to win it, Boeing Vice President Jim Albaugh downplayed the rivalry.
"Our decision to come to South Carolina is going to be good for our competitiveness," Albaugh said. "It's going to be good for our company. It's going to be good for the country, and, I think, it will create jobs not just here in South Carolina, but also in Washington state."
A Nonunion Workforce
Indeed, Boeing is considering this plant a secondary one for the 787. Most of the new jets will still be made in the Seattle area, but by straying from its ancestral Pacific Northwest home, Boeing is sending a message to organized labor. South Carolina is a right-to-work state with one of the nation's lowest unionization rates.
Seattle Times economic columnist Jon Talton says Boeing wanted employees who wouldn't strike, as its unionized workers have done five times in the past 20 years.
"They wanted labor stability. They want a lower-wage workforce, which for at least a while they will get in South Carolina," Talton said. "And I think the management is absolutely determined to diversify their manufacturing out of Puget Sound."
Talton says it's not clear how much Boeing might save in South Carolina. Although the company will spend less on labor and receive more than $175 million in state incentives, it will have to train a new workforce. Boeing's Seattle unions predict that may be the undoing of the Southern operation.
Cost Of Training
"We have here in Puget Sound generations of airplane building," says Connie Kelliher, who is with the International Association of Machinists. "It's not something you just develop overnight, and at 30,000 feet in the sky, it has to be right."
At Friday's celebration in South Carolina, people bristled at the idea that local workers are less competent than their Pacific Northwest brethren. More than a few mouths dropped here after a Seattle newspaper cartoon depicted South Carolina's Boeing employees as bumbling hillbillies, working in a factory that included a moonshine still, a Confederate flag and a noose like the kind used for lynchings.
State Sen. Jake Knotts points that out South Carolinians already build BMW sport utility vehicles and make parts for Boeing planes. He says he has no doubt they can be trained to build the Dreamliner.
"When you have the work ethic, and you're willing to work without all the rigmarole that you have to go through in some of these other states with unions, we can accomplish what we have to do," Knotts said.
If all goes according to plan, the South Carolina plant will open by mid-2011. But when it comes to the 787, not much has gone according to plan. The plane's first test flight is more than two years behind schedule, and Boeing's decision to outsource many of the jet's major systems has led to a production nightmare. Now, the company is flying deeper into uncharted skies, relying on a newly built plant and newly trained workers to build what it hopes will become its flagship product.