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Boeing Mum on New Line, but Long Beach Gears Up

July 10, 1998|ELIZABETH DOUGLASS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A formal announcement is still weeks away, but expensive upgrades are underway and optimism is running high in Long Beach, where Boeing Co. workers are hoping the company will add a new jetliner assembly line at the former Douglas Aircraft facility.

For months, Seattle-based Boeing has been considering a new assembly line in Long Beach for some versions of its popular 737 passenger plane--a move that could ease production bottlenecks in Washington. But Boeing has repeatedly said it won't announce a decision until next month.

In the meantime, though, every word uttered by Boeing executives and each related development is being closely scrutinized in both Long Beach and in Boeing's home state of Washington, where labor union leaders have vigorously protested the idea of shifting any work to Southern California.

Next week, leaders of District Lodge 751 of the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers--the labor union that represents Boeing's Seattle-area production workers--will meet with company executives to present a plan they say would resolve production snags and make room for new 737 lines in Washington.

"This is scary to the people that work up here, so as a union, we have to fight back," said Bill Johnson, president of the IAM's District Lodge 751. "We're worried that when we hit a down cycle, they might decide to leave all the 737 work in Long Beach."

Much of the latest speculation was fueled by remarks made by Ron Woodard, president of Boeing Commercial Airplane Group, on Wednesday at Boeing Field in Seattle. Woodard said the company could increase its production of 737s to 30 planes per month if it added a line in Long Beach.

Indeed, union leaders said Boeing is sending shipment of fuselages by rail from Wichita, Kan. (where 737 bodies are built), to Renton, Wash., and from Wichita to Long Beach as a test to compare costs and feasibility issues.

In addition, a section of Building 84 in Long Beach is being readied for a potential new line, including the addition of rail tracks for a new plane-section-moving crane and the installation of a pit for testing landing gear. The crane is on order.

"The permanent work in Building 84 is a good sign," said Kedrick Legg, president of Local 148 of the United Aerospace Workers, the labor union that represents 7,500 Boeing employees in Long Beach. "I don't think they're spending that kind of money for nothing."

However, a Boeing spokesman cautioned against drawing conclusions based on the preparations.

"We just think it would be prudent to do the [upgrade] work now, so that if they decide to place 737 work here, we'll be ahead of the game," said John Thom, a Boeing spokesman in Long Beach.

Thom also warned that any additional work is unlikely to fully offset the looming layoffs at the Douglas Products Division.

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