Boeing’s history reveals connections and disconnections in the West’s economy

The placelessness of corporations today can imperil communities.

 

Reckoning with History is an ongoing series that seeks to understand the legacies of the past and to put the West’s present moment in perspective.

Recent events have upended Boeing and its 737 Max project. After two crashes and nearly 350 deaths, the company president lost his job, and production of the plane was suspended, prompting concerns that the nation’s gross domestic product could drop. In the Seattle metropolitan area, specifically Renton, Washington, where the 737 Max is built, workers have been reassigned. This is not a new situation: The region’s fortunes have long been intertwined with those of Boeing, the area’s leading employer through most of the mid-to-late 20th century.

From Seattle’s perspective, the company’s financial problems pale compared with previous events. In 1971, after a federal contract was canceled, Boeing cut its workforce from a high of 100,000 just four years earlier to fewer than 40,000 people. A billboard appeared in the city: “Will the last person leaving SEATTLE — Turn out the lights.” Such booms and busts are common in the Western U.S., reflected in the region’s ghost towns and hollowed-out timber mills. But Boeing’s history exemplifies a deeper trend: how many corporations, once rooted in specific locations, have eroded the geographic connections that once nurtured and defined both those businesses and the places themselves.

Crowds gather at the Boeing plant in Seattle in December 1962 for the first look at the new Boeing 727 jet airliner.
Central Press/Getty Images

Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1881, William E. Boeing built a successful timber company in western Washington in his 20s. Long fascinated by aviation, he turned to airplanes in his 30s and, in 1916, incorporated what would became today’s Boeing Company, the largest aerospace corporation in the United States. The enterprise, based on Seattle’s Duwamish River, grew fast and benefited during World War I from the government contracts it received.

Boeing innovated and diversified. By the time World War II broke out, the company occupied an advantageous position: Not only did it have more than two decades of experience building airplanes, but it was close to both the Pacific Theater and the hydropower projects in the Columbia River Basin. Grand Coulee Dam furnished the power to smelt the aluminum for one-third of all planes built during the war. Boeing opened new plants, and for the first time it expanded its labor force, grudgingly, to include significant numbers of African Americans and middle-class white women.

The Cold War accelerated these trends; the company moved into space and expanded its commercial line. Those middle decades of the 20th century boosted Seattle, too, as all along the West Coast military spending helped metropolitan populations and economies grow. The benefits were mutual, but the situation fostered a frustrating dependency.

By the 1960s, Boeing was the foundation of Seattle’s economy. Then the Boeing Bust peaked in 1971, leading to that notorious billboard. The company hemorrhaged jobs, and the regional economy went into a tailspin. In response, policymakers worked to diversify, laying the groundwork for the Microsoft- and Amazon-led tech boom that characterizes Seattle’s economic culture and identity today.

Meanwhile, the knot between Boeing and Seattle continued to unravel. In 2001, the company moved its headquarters to Chicago, saying it needed to be in a more neutral and convenient domestic location. Philip Condit, chair of Boeing’s board at the time, said, “We don’t want to be off in a corner of America.”

In today’s global political economy, capital is nimble, supply chains long, and corporate decision-makers live far from where their actions affect the lives and hometowns of workers. 

Although Boeing still builds planes in the Seattle area, its management now looks out on Lake Michigan, not Puget Sound. In today’s global political economy, capital is nimble, supply chains long, and corporate decision-makers live far from where their actions affect the lives and hometowns of workers. Corporate loyalties often lie with the friendliest government — in 2001, Chicago offered Boeing around $60 million in incentives — but even this isn’t new. Early in its history, Boeing threatened to relocate to Los Angeles if local officials refused to build a bigger airfield; King County responded by constructing what Seattleites know as Boeing Field.

Clearly, neither Boeing nor this moment is unique. Many businesses start off grounded in a particular place because of the region’s resources or other advantages. Today, the economy appears to transcend such locales, but corporate legacies remain inescapable — both locally, like the history of toxic chemicals leaking into the Duwamish River, and much farther away, like the 2,800 estimated layoffs for Boeing’s biggest supplier in Wichita, Kansas. Ultimately, the balance sheet always seems to reflect powerful asymmetries, with the communities forced to accommodate the companies, never the other way around. 

Adam M. Sowards is an environmental historian, professor and writer. He lives in Pullman, Washington. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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