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Originally published October 7, 2010 at 10:50 AM | Page modified October 7, 2010 at 7:48 PM

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McNerney tells unions Boeing's global supply chain is crucial

Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney addressed an international group of trade union officials and delivered a robust defense of free trade and Boeing's practice of sending work to other countries.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney swept briskly into the Westin hotel in downtown Seattle Wednesday morning and addressed to an international trade union conference packed with officials of the company's local Machinists union.

In a lion's den of labor leaders, McNerney tackled two of the thorniest union issues, delivering a robust defense of free trade and Boeing's practice of sending work to other countries.

"Very few customers today are willing to purchase aerospace products or services without expecting some form of industrial partnership, through global supply chains," McNerney said.

He pointed out that around 80 percent of Boeing's commercial airplane backlog will go to non-U.S. customers and that a big percentage of the future growth in the defense division of the company will likewise come from international markets.

"Economies and jobs prosper when people travel and ship goods more and more often," McNerney said. "Trade is critical to our entire industry's long-term success."

Afterwards some Machinists who had listened to him praised his forthrightness.

"I liked him. He was honest," said Emerson Hamilton, a local official with the International Association of Machinists (IAM), which was hosting the international aerospace workers conference. "Of the three CEOs I've listened to at Boeing, he seemed to answer the questions directly and not beat around the bush."

Tom Wroblewski, president of IAM district 751, said that in a short question and answer session following the speech, he asked McNerney if, given all the problems that have arisen through outsourcing of the 787 Dreamliner, he could commit to placing more future work here in the Puget Sound region.

McNerney conceded in his response that Boeing has made mistakes in outsourcing too much.

"He indicated that, yes, they'd gone too far and that, yes, they will be bringing back some work and make better use of our skills and abilities," Wroblewski said.

He said McNerney mentioned placing more work here for the next version of the Dreamliner, the 787-9. But he did not commit to anything on future airplanes.

The two-day conference opened Tuesday and was not open to the public or the press. Focusing on aerospace workers, it was organized by a Geneva-based trade union umbrella group, the International Metalworkers' Federation, and drew union officials from Europe and North America.

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One strong message at the conference on the opening day was a united concern among both European and U.S. unions about the outsourcing of work by both Airbus and Boeing to China.

Wroblewski said McNerney made very clear in the question and answer session that Boeing won't be pulling back from China, projected to be the largest airplane market in the world over the next two decades.

"We need to compete for part of that market," Wroblewski said. "He's telling us the company is a global company and will continue to be a global company."

Wroblewski said that while McNerney dismissed the notion that assembly of a plane such as the Everett-built 777 widebody might be switched to China, he said parts of it could certainly be built there.

Wroblewski declared himself unsurprised by anything McNerney had said, and "cautiously optimistic" that Boeing and the IAM can avoid another strike in the next round of contract negotiations in 2012.

"He's left the door open for moving forward," said Wroblewski.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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