South Carolina governor, senior senator reach out to Boeing

Two top South Carolina politicians said Friday they have been in contact with Boeing officials concerning production of the 777X passenger jet after the Machinist union rejected a labor contract in Washington state, putting thousands of future jobs out for bids.

In separate appearances in Charleston, Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham indicated the Palmetto State is making sure the Chicago-based aerospace giant knows it’s interested in the new jet project.

“‘South Carolina is on standby and ready for you whenever you need us,’” Haley said she told a Boeing official.

“I want whatever we can do to be helpful to Boeing,” the governor said, ending her silence on the highly public 777X project. “Naturally, I want jobs. I want lots of jobs. ... What I don’t want is do is be harassing to them. What I do want to do is be very supportive of them.”

She indicated it was too early to talk about incentives to lure the production line to North Charleston, where Boeing assembles the 787 Dreamliner.

The state offered Boeing $450 million in incentives in 2009 to win the Dreamliner plant. It offered another $120 million in April for the airplane maker’s guarantee it would create 2,000 more jobs and another $1 billion in investment by 2020. Boeing employs about 6,100 people in the Charleston area, most of them at the 787 campus in North Charleston.

Haley, after speaking at a business function on the Isle of Palms, also said not to pay too much attention to all the rumors about where 777X production might land.

“I think you are hearing a lot of rumors right now. I wouldn’t take any rumors seriously,” Haley said. “Things don’t turn on a dime like that, especially with a company the size of Boeing. Our job is to support them in every decision that they make and to be there for them, so they know that South Carolina always wants to be their home.”

Graham cautioned it was too early to start celebrating over the International Association of Machinists’ 2-to-1 vote against a proposed eight-year labor agreement and Boeing’s subsequent search elsewhere to build a new version of the twin-engine 777.

“I don’t want to get people’s hopes up about where the 777 project will go,” said the state’s senior senator while visiting the State Ports Authority. He was in Charleston to update plans on deepening Charleston Harbor for larger ships.

Graham said he talked with a Boeing official Thursday evening and expressed that the state is ready to help the company expand if it chooses South Carolina over competing states.

“We have certainly communicated to Boeing, and I know the governor also has, that we will gladly accept any new business,” he said.

Haley also reiterated her disdain for unions, signaling to Boeing that South Carolina is a right-to-work state and against organized labor.

“I feel bad for the governor of Washington. It is a terrible thing when you see great industry in your state trying to work and you have the union go in and try to kill it,” Haley said.

“I don’t want them in this state. We don’t need them in this state. Our companies take care of those who take care of them, but when a union enters your state, they completely take over the business climate and they kill jobs,” she said. “We are not going to have that in the state of South Carolina.”

The Chicago-based aerospace giant started looking across the nation Thursday for an alternate site to build the new plane after the union overwhelmingly rejected a labor contract calling for concessions on pension and health care benefits.

Boeing had pledged to build the 777X and its composite wings in Washington state if the state approved incentives and the union accepted the deal. The state did. The union didn’t. Boeing promised to look elsewhere if the union vote failed.

Speculation centered on several Boeing facilities across the U.S. as possible alternatives, including the company’s 787 Dreamliner campus in North Charleston, where Boeing is buying 267 acres for an undisclosed future use.

Aviation analyst Scott Hamilton in Washington believes “it’s an uphill climb” for Boeing to select South Carolina because the nascent aerospace operation has not met production goals on the 787 and a new production line of an existing plane might not be in the company’s best interest in North Charleston.

Others sites mentioned as possible alternatives for Boeing to build the 777X include Long Beach, Calif.; Salt Lake City, Utah; Huntsville, Ala.; and San Antonio, Texas.

Long Beach, a port city, is believed to be the top contender because Boeing is mothballing C-17 cargo plane production in 2015, which will leave an experienced work force and a state clamoring to offer incentives to save thousands of jobs.

Boeing announced last week that part of the detailed design work of the 777X will be performed in North Charleston as well as other sites across the nation.

Boeing wants the 777X to be in production by 2017 and 2018 and in the air by the end of the decade.

The company is expected to officially launch the new plane during the Dubai Air Show in the Middle East —which starts Sunday — when several new orders are expected to be placed.

Staff reporters Schuyler Kropf and Tyrone Richardson contributed to this report.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.

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