Talking about Defense: Fighter-plane hopes, layoff fears

ST. LOUIS--You wouldn't think that Thomas Chapin, a union machinist earning $46,000 a year at the Boeing aircraft assembly plant here, would have much in common with Philip Condit, Boeing's $15.5 million-a-year chief executive. But they do-up to a point. Of course, at another point, their interests diverge sharply. The reasons for that divergence give an insight into the nervousness afflicting today's downsized aerospace industry. One of the bonds the two men share is their common, maybe even desperate, effort to win what could be the Pentagon's largest contract ever--a $200 billion deal to build the military's next generation fighter-bomber, the Joint Strike Fighter. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is now reviewing the JSF program, and could delay or cancel it to save money. Both Chapin's union--the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, AFL-CIO--and Boeing management will continue to contribute money to helpful politicians as part of the high-stakes lobbying to keep the JSF alive. Chapin and Condit are also willing to go to great lengths to keep their company in the fighter-airplane business. The same is true of Lockheed Martin, the only other aerospace company that can build an entire fighter aircraft these days. Boeing and Lockheed are competing for the contract to build as many as 3,000 JSFs for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, as well as for foreign militaries. If the Pentagon goes ahead with its winner-take-all plan for the JSF contract, one of the two competing companies will almost certainly have to get out of the fighter-plane business. Another bond between blue-collar workers such as Chapin and white-collar executives such as Condit is the emotional lift they get from seeing their often-revolutionary work finally take wing from the factory runway and zoom into the sky. That feeling is so strong in Chapin, it kept him coming back to building airplanes even after he endured seven painful layoffs in four different states. "I can do a lot of other trades, but this is the one I love," Chapin told National Journal in an interview in the cavernous, brightly lit aircraft assembly plant that is softened somewhat by large pictures of a trout stream and verdant landscapes hanging on high, windowless walls. Chapin knows how to bend metal into a flying shape. But on the day of the interview, he was taking apart and inspecting hydraulic lines on the Navy's newest plane, the F/A-18 E and F fighter-bomber. Chapin could look in any direction in the surprisingly quiet plant and watch fellow workers on scaffolding transforming chunks of metal skeleton into flying machines. The planes were scattered around the factory floor, rather than lined up nose to tail as in the old days of mass production. "I've worked on helicopters; I've worked on small airplanes; I got a chance to work on a bomber [the Northrop Grumman B-2], and the big cargo plane [Lockheed C-5 ] and now this [the F/A-18]. I think I enjoy these fighters more than I do anything. I still get excited walking out there and watching them fly." Chapin said if he could live his life over again, he would pursue the offers his outstanding grades in high school had brought him, including one from the Army urging him to come to West Point. He sees now that he could have become an officer and a pilot rather than a machinist who makes planes for others to fly. But he said he gets to experience the wild-blue-yonder feeling anyway, when he puts his hands on a plane and helps give it birth. The hunger for that special feeling, Chapin said, has kept him coming back, even though at times, with all the layoffs and moves, he came to feel like a migrant worker worrying about where he could find a new crop to pick. His layoff from McDonnell Douglas in 1992 proved to be particularly painful. He said he couldn't pay his electric bill; eventually, the utility shut off the power to his mobile home. "Me and my boy went out and lived in a tent in the yard. I just made a game of it. I told him we were camping. I broke out the Coleman stove." Chapin's son Michael was 2 years old at the time. Right after his birth, Michael's mother had run off with another man and left the baby with his father. Chapin's love of aircraft building actually worked against him in some ways. "Nobody would hire me because they knew I would come back here," Chapin said. "That was the worst part of it." When he did find a good job, his prospective employer would tell him to withdraw from the union so he wouldn't be tempted to return to the aircraft assembly line. But Chapin didn't want to give up building airplanes any more than a pilot would want to give up flying. So he kept his union card. To get by during the layoff, he took a part-time, $8-an-hour job teaching young people trades, collected a $175 weekly unemployment check, and dipped deeply into his savings. The union finally called to tell him he could return to McDonnell Douglas building airplanes. Chapin now works at Boeing (which bought McDonnell Douglas in 1997) on a shift that runs from 4:18 a.m. to 2:48 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and pays $22.30 an hour. And he works as much overtime as the company offers. He takes over the cooking and caring for, and taxiing of, their four children shortly after he gets home so that his second wife, Peggy, can get to her $15-an-hour night job at Ford Motor Co. After doing the supper dishes and helping with the homework, he usually gets to bed at 11 p.m. The alarm goes off at 3 a.m. Reflecting the fears of thousands of blue-collar workers, as well as white-collar designers and engineers, in today's troubled aerospace industry, Chapin said: "I don't feel safe at all. I never really have since the second or third layoff. "I'm always looking-seeing what's out there. I know a layoff is right around the corner all the time. We never know when it's going to happen. I go to job fairs, things like that." He and Peggy try to husband their savings. Chapin's big hobby--searching nearby farm fields with his buddies for Indian arrowheads--costs a lot less than playing golf, for example. The Chapins are determined that their children be all they can be--whether it's learning a good trade or becoming a psychiatrist--no matter how hard they themselves have to work. But they both long for job stability. "My dream is that some day, they'll announce over the loudspeaker that we will at least get the final assembly of the Joint Strike Fighter," said Chapin, who is 43. "They claim the JSF contract would last 20 years." He said such a contract would enable him to stay put until he reached retirement age. Others here share Chapin's dream, including Rick Smith, president of IAM's Aerospace District Lodge 837, which represents Chapin and other union workers; Gerald E. Daniels, president of Boeing's Military Aircraft and Missile Systems group in St. Louis; and CEO Condit. Boeing's counterparts at Lockheed Martin share the same dream. But Chapin is apprehensive about the Boeing management team's plan for slimming down in hopes of beating the competition. "They've made it very clear that they're going to be a world company, that a lot of work may go overseas," Chapin said. Many union people have come to regard globalization as a bad word, and they're not much fond of "outsourcing" and "management flexibility," either. Union leader Smith is especially concerned about management's demand in current labor contract negotiations for worker flexibility. Management wants the right to have workers learn each other's jobs, which Smith said would set the stage for laying off more of IAM's 3,300 workers at the Boeing plant here. Whether Chapin's $22.30 hourly wage is increased is now far less important to Boeing's management, Smith said, than achieving flexibility to maximize the company's core strengths. Management's theme is that "we need that flexibility to be more competitive so we can win the JSF," Smith said. "Without that flexibility, we may not be able to win." The union's biggest priority, in contrast, is keeping jobs. "Our big thrust is not the dollar amount," said Smith, "it's security. If an aerospace worker loses his job in St. Louis, he has nowhere to go inside the state of Missouri or Illinois. He's got to go to Wichita or southern California or somewhere other than Missouri." Condit, Daniels, and other top executives in the aerospace industry want to retain skilled and motivated workers such as Chapin. At the same time, they feel they must do whatever it takes to win the JSF and other large government contracts, or else everyone will lose. Boeing serves everybody by concentrating on what it can do best, Daniels said in an interview in a seventh-floor office looking over the site where his company would build a new factory for the JSF, if it wins the contract. Daniels acknowledged "a certain amount of concern and fear in our employees" stemming from outsourcing, and the company's concentration on "core competencies." But he underscored that computers and other new technologies have landed the industry in a new era. "JSF represented an almost generational shift in our technical ability to design and build. We no longer should be in parts manufacturing," because "that's not where we add tremendous value." So the company sold off that part of its business in St. Louis. As Boeing and Lockheed go all out to slim down, restructure, and go global so they can win the lucrative JSF prize, I'm reminded of the story about the U.S. Army officer who allegedly said he had to destroy a South Vietnamese town to save it. How lean must the surviving aerospace companies become to win the JSF and other big contracts? Is the industry becoming similar to the farmer who trained his horse to work without eating until one day the horse dropped dead? What will happen to America's industrial capacity to build future aircraft if the Pentagon's winner-take-all approach on the JSF prevails? All of this requires some hard thinking by President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld, and Congress. The futures of thousands of Thomas Chapins will depend on their decisions.
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