This could be the moment that Wichita loses Hawker Beechcraft and its 6,000 local jobs — or does what is necessary to keep the general aviation company in Wichita, where it was born and where it belongs.
At least that’s the situation if Hawker Beechcraft’s offer from Baton Rouge, La., was as described to the Machinists union Friday and, in turn, to the community. Louisiana reportedly has raised its offer from $100 million to $400 million in an effort to attract not just one of the company’s product lines but all of its operations and jobs.
The response from Wichita and Kansas to Baton Rouge and Louisiana must be unequivocal:
You can’t have them.
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Wichita is where Hawker’s highly skilled work force and first-rate facilities are, along with the community’s unparalleled infrastructure of aviation research, development, suppliers, maintenance and training.
To his credit, Gov. Mark Parkinson reportedly plans to meet with Hawker Beechcraft CEO Bill Boisture and Machinists union officials today in Topeka, to discuss ways to enable the company to stay in Wichita.
Elected officials have shown before that they can step up quickly in ways that transcend politics to defend Wichita’s aircraft manufacturing jobs, such as in 2003, when the Legislature approved $500 million in bonds for Boeing; in 2008, when state lawmakers and local governments extended $40 million in incentives to Cessna Aircraft; and in July, when the state approved $27 million in bond financing for Bombardier Learjet. Similarly, state, local and union leaders must come together this time to stave off the loss of Hawker Beechcraft.
Mayor Carl Brewer told The Eagle there were efforts under way that he couldn’t discuss: “We’re doing everything we possibly can. The company is important to us.”
Hanging in the balance — the Machinists union’s negotiations toward a new contract, which had been scheduled for a vote this weekend.
The local economy is in a kind of limbo, too, as other employers wait to see whether last month’s more than 1,000 announced layoffs at Cessna Aircraft Co. and Hawker Beechcraft were another wave in the tsunami that started in 2008 or the start of something worse.
While this emergency situation was created by Louisiana’s effort to poach Kansas jobs — infuriatingly, perhaps with the aid of federal stimulus funds — the challenge of defending Wichita’s aviation cluster is much bigger than one state or company.
With aircraft workers earning $2.65 an hour in Mexico, compared with the more than $24 an hour Hawker Beechcraft pays hourly workers, the siren song of cheap foreign labor eventually would be as loud in Baton Rouge as it is in Wichita.
For now, though, no effort must be spared to prevent Hawker Beechcraft from pulling up and leaving Wichita — the place of Beech Aircraft’s birth 78 years ago and the current home of its unequaled work force.