Kshama Sawant Is Right About Boeing
By Matson Boyd
This past November, after Boeing threatened to leave Washington State, the state passed a bill to give Boeing the largest tax break any state has ever granted a company: $8.7 billion from now until 2040. Boeing wasn’t in financial difficulty. In fact, in December they gave $10 billion back to shareholders in the form of a stock buy-back. Instead it was relatively routine extortion, part of the accelerating race to the bottom that has transferred massive wealth from communities to corporations. Most analysts acknowledge that this is an absurd situation, the only divide is between those who think there is nothing we can do, and those who say it is time to take a stand.
Newly elected Seattle councilor Kshama Sawant is among those taking a stand. She recently argued:
The only response we can have if Boeing executives do not agree to keep the plant here is for the machinists to say, ‘the machines are here, the workers are here, we will do the job, we don’t need the executives.’ The executives don’t do the work, the machinists do.
This drew a rebuke from Matt Yglesias in a post titled “Socialism off to a Poor Start in Seattle”:
Can Boeing’s front-line workers actually retool an airplane factory and turn it to bus production and win contracts to sell buses that raise enough revenue to keep everyone employed? Only time will tell for sure, but in the real world the answer is “no.” This is exactly what you need executives for. Retooling plants, establishing relationships with suppliers and customers, understanding the size of the market for buses, and all that other stuff is a nontrivial task.
Yglesias is correct that Sawant is too dismissive of the necessary work of management, but in his effort to discredit Sawant he misleadingly lumps together the management of a company with the control of a company through ownership stakes. It doesn’t make sense to justify the existence of a predatory group of shareholders by saying that the workforce needs managers; managers and shareholders are two different things. And it is certainly possible, though by no means easy, that Washington State or the Boeing workers could take over the ownership of the facilities and still hire managers.
We’ve allowed this extortion to develop by legitimizing whatever activities corporations find to be profitable and delegitimizing any attempt by the state or workers to take some power back. It’s time to take alternatives seriously, instead of blithely dismissing them as Yglesias does. These alternatives could be anything from stronger unions, to worker representation on boards, to norms that prevent corporations from extorting communities, to a tolerance for state industrial development that provides a fallback to workers when companies leave. The list could go on, we must stop saying there is nothing we can do.
In fairness to Yglesias, he himself is aware of the absurdity of the giant giveaways to corporations. In a more recent piece, after reviewing Boeing’s demands for a site “at no cost, or very low cost” and for a facility at “no cost, or significantly reduced cost”, he wrote:
If your strategy for attracting the construction of an airplane factory to your town includes footing the entire bill for an airplane factory, then you might as well just launch an airplane manufacturing company.
I think he’s on to something.