Up to union now

After the state struck a deal with Hawker Beechcraft and the Machinists union last week to keep the majority of the company’s jobs in Wichita, it took the union and company just four days of negotiations to reach a tentative agreement on a new seven-year labor contract. That demonstrated the remarkable commitment of the partners.

Now the community can hope that the 2,600 local workers represented by the Machinists union see their way to approving the contract Saturday — because approval will activate the company’s incentives deal with the state and prevent a full relocation to Louisiana or elsewhere.

That’s imperative not just for all 6,000 members of Hawker’s local work force, whose jobs and futures are at stake, but also for the struggling Wichita economy, which can’t afford to lose this proud 78-year-old anchor of its aircraft-manufacturing industry.

Gov. Mark Parkinson, speaking recently on the Fox Business network, noted that Kansas has the seventhlowest unemployment rate in the nation but is in “hand-to-hand combat with almost every other state that would like to take our aircraft-manufacturing jobs.”

That situation won’t change, even if Hawker’s move is averted, because of how coveted these companies and their high-paying jobs are.

But the deal that Parkinson aggressively brokered last week with Hawker Beechcraft CEO Bill Boisture and the Machinists union averted this specific threat, on the condition that a long-term contract could be negotiated and approved.

“What we’ve taken off the table is the competition from other states” for the Hawker jobs, Parkinson said.

The next move is the union members’.

Granted, there is a lot for union members to dislike in the contract, including its 10 percent base wage cut, reduced time off and higher health benefit contributions. But, regrettably, such painful changes have become common throughout the local economy during this downturn. Plus, the Hawker contract will offer workers seven years of enviable job security, as it assists the company in cutting costs and becoming more competitive.

The canceled orders of the recent recession have devastated all of the local planemakers and their suppliers, setting off wave after wave of layoffs. But Hawker Beechcraft’s concerns are compounded by its debt load. According to a recent report by Moody’s Investors Service, Hawker is highly leveraged with $2.135 billion in debt and will need to improve its financial footing if it expects to successfully refinance $1.4 billion due in 2014. The contract will serve the company’s urgent need to reduce costs.

Workers represented by the union don’t have to love or even like the contract.

As union officials said this week about their goal for negotiations: “It’s about having a job. It’s about survival in this economy.”

If union members recognize not only what this moment means to their families but also what the company and community are facing — and vote accordingly — Saturday will stand as a crucial moment when Wichita stood up to competition for its aviation jobs, and won big.