POSTED ON MAY 16, 2012:
No Mo Hat In Hand:
"Muscling" into Tulsa's aerospace future
In Charles Dickens' luminous tale of industrializing England, Oliver Twist, the protagonist (Oliver) is selected by his poor-house kid peers to confront "management" over meager food rations. Oliver makes a general request: he bellies up to the main man and says famously: "Please sir, may I have some more?"
What's To Come of Us?
Can American communities, imperiled by harsh and not very thoughtful corporate decisions do anything about their fates? Can and should we try to do so in T-Town?
Can American towns, particularly communities as rich from an entrepreneurial and business vantage as Tulsa, craft futures without making bitter, almost colonial concessions to aging corporations?
Our unpleasant rendezvous with American Airlines in its time of troubles is arguably part of a national drama: the onset of traumatic corporate re-balancing with our great recession, savage changes in employment, volatile energy costs, disruptive technologies and sometimes unfavorable trade dynamics. But the red hot, gonzo problem: the corporate power/community disruption nexus is largely overlooked -- Americans often regard the "word" of a large firm on futures (jobs, location specific vendor contracts etc.) as a definitive call -- the end of the discussion and the beginning of an often humbling community capitulation. And this happens even in towns where firms are big beneficiaries of public dollars or places where armies of workers who are the vital engines of an enterprise reside.
A Slow Crash
As UTW readers surely know, American Airlines (AA) has proposed laying off tens of thousands of workers nationally and between 1,200-2,600 people in Tulsa. Cancellation of multi-million dollar contracts, a spin down of supplier networks and decisions on continued use of a huge City owned hanger, diagnostic facilities and other assets -- assets that Tulsa taxpayers have subsidized to the tune of more that $35 million -- are also afoot.
As UTW goes to press, T-Town American Airlines workers have a real dilemma -- one spawned by AA's ongoing bankruptcy. Should they approve a proposal handed down from corporate high that would reduce the number of anticipated job cutbacks here and elsewhere but stipulate an anemic 7.5 percent wage increase over the course of the next six years?
But there is more pain in prospect: the so called "final deal" from American management envisions outsourcing at least 35 percent of the maintenance, repair and allied work currently done in the country and, significantly, here in Tulsa -- including technically challenging, state-of-the-art tasking spawned by AA's tardy acquisition of the more fuel efficient and composite materials laden Boeing "Dreamliner" and the advanced A3X0 jetliners from Airbus. Mastering repair and maintenance of these new aircraft is very critical for an aerospace community with a real future: forestalling these opportunities is mind boggling and radically shortchanges Tulsa workers.
The alternative to Prop "A" (call it Prop "B")is a threat on the part of AA management to secure bankruptcy court OK for an even more draconian "term sheet" deal -- a deal that stipulates more worker cutbacks and a series of other biz cult changes that AA workers I've talked to in recent days see as wholly negative. Prop "B" also grants wide latitude to AA management to ignore most of labor's productivity ideas for the time being.
The whole thing is a Hobbesian choice set that some of Green Country's most skilled, most publicly spirited and technically agile workers had before them this past weekend. By the time you read this, AA workers will have voted yes or no.
What Does It Look Like?
Where is Tulsa's can do, wildcatter culture when it comes to dealing with large firms that may not be sufficiently appreciative of Tulsa taxpayers and their support -- and the signal value of a peerless "fly world" work force?
How about rounding up some public dollars via a quick call referendum campaign this summer designed to spin off the AA maintenance and engineering center here in Tulsa? Or how about an aerospace/industry-wide super initiative that Tulsa elected officials and our business community could use to counter the many demotivating strategies seemingly at the core of the American Airline re-structure effort. And why not grab a place at the table for Green Country at the roll out of the revolutionary space/asteroid mining/resource exploitation play launched last week -- the new Planetary Resources Inc. venture.
Some Muscular Options:
Even after the results of this past week's AA worker "referenda" are known, there is still time to explore stouter paths for re-floating aerospace in the region, post American Airlines. I have Jason McIntosh, a friend and a clever Tulsa political/strategic thinker and several other Tulsa buds to thank for helping me sketch some options:
If American Airlines can't or won't manage their MRO unit in a way that insures that a great work force is taken care of, there is sufficient work to support the metro Tulsa business ecology and a good return, why not use public, private and philanthropic dollars to buy the current operation from AA and launch a new, largely private standalone maintenance/repair venture?
Gin Up an Aerospace Booster "Project"We've done something like this on a big time basis before -- once on a contingent basis for behemoth Boeing: $350 million was approved by Tulsa voters in late 2003 and never triggered. The notion was to get Boeing to locate the assembly plant for the Boeing 787 -- the breakout "Dreamliner" airliner: a hyper fuel-efficient aircraft, in Tulsa. In December 2003, Boeing chose Everett, Wash. and the Tulsa tax package required to fund the Boeing project was never put in place.
We can and should craft an initiative to make Tulsa the best staffed, equipped and most imaginative aerospace support enclave on the planet -- and while we're at it we should bake-in some stout private capital & state participation as well. This new "aerospace warren" could be jointly managed by an ensemble of existing Tulsa based private aerospace firms, our career tech folks and our university community.
A Fall Back Plan: Consummate A Merger?
Maybe we should move past AA and help our aerospace workforce find a new "home" with the obviously interested US Airlines. An AA/US Air merger is an outcome preferred by a bevy of AA's unions as expressed by a recent "contingent labor" agreement with US Air. The trick: sweeten deal prospects by offering up funding (private and public) for extraordinary training or re-training and other items that could push a closing and give Tulsa an arguably healthier big partner in aerospace futures.
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