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Boeing's 737 Max Crisis Weighs Heavily On Workers, Retirees


The Boeing 737 MAX crisis is weighing heavily on the company's workforce, from the crashes to the grounding of the plane to these recently released damaging internal messages. For thousands of workers and retirees in Washington state where Boeing has built planes since World War I, this has been a difficult moment. Ashley Gross from member station KNKX in Seattle has more.

ASHLEY GROSS, BYLINE: Doughnuts and cookies are set out on a table in the machinists union hall in Renton south of Seattle. The office is near the Boeing plant where the 737 MAX is built. It's 6 a.m. and pitch dark outside, but workers are streaming in for a town hall meeting with their union leaders.

JON HOLDEN: Definitely, there's a concern about where the MAX program is at.

GROSS: Jon Holden is president of District 751 of the machinists union. It represents about 9,000 people who work on the 737. One big thing on their minds is the shutdown of the MAX production line. Boeing is not laying people off right now, but some workers are being temporarily deployed elsewhere in Washington and California.

HOLDEN: People hate to see the two MAXES crash. It's a devastating thing for the families of people that perished on those airplanes. And it will be a quality airplane. It will be a safe airplane.

GROSS: Holden says the machinists care about their work and have pride in the planes they build. That's a thread that runs throughout the century of the Boeing company's existence.

T C HOWARD: See these motors here?

GROSS: TC Howard is 85 years old and a Boeing retiree. He's giving a tour of Boeing's very first 727 jet. He and other volunteers spent years restoring it and replacing parts so it could make one final flight.

HOWARD: This is a flap drive motor - one's hydraulic, one's electric.

GROSS: Howard has a passion for aviation, and that motivated him to take on this project.

HOWARD: I think of it as love for the airplane. The airplane's got a soul. And its soul doesn't belong sitting there rusting apart.

GROSS: He was a quality assurance manager when he retired from Boeing in 1994. He says even back then he started to see the company prioritizing cost cutting but not sacrificing safety. In recent years, he thinks management got too focused on costs.

HOWARD: They're bean counters. They're looking at it for profit. They're not looking at it for the name of the company, which to me used to mean quality, safety.

GROSS: Do you feel sad right now when you think about where - what Boeing is going through?

HOWARD: No, I'm mad, not sad.

GROSS: But another retiree, Alan Rice, says it's not that cut and dried. Of course, Boeing had to think about staying profitable.

ALAN RICE: Every business that's still in business over a long period of time has had to do the same thing or they would have been passed by. Why are they doing it if they're not trying to make money?

GROSS: Rice retired from Boeing in 2016 after a 38-year career as an engineer. He says he never saw safety take a back seat to profits. And he's proud of his time there. But Rice says he's concerned the rest of the world doesn't see the company the same way.

RICE: There used to be a saying, if it's not Boeing, I'm not going. And I doubt if that's how people feel today. And I want to get back to that.

GROSS: The new chief executive, Dave Calhoun, told employees this month he's focused on putting safety, quality and integrity above all else. Retirees and tens of thousands of Boeing workers here are hoping that he'll follow through. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Gross in Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEARL JAM SONG, "OF THE GIRL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.