Farnborough Air Show Has Ugly Side, Says Union President

FARNBOROUGH, England ( TheStreet) -- The 2012 Farnborough Air Show is shaping up as a good one for Boeing ( BA), and that's fine with Tom Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists, which represents about 29,000 Boeing workers.

But Buffenbarger said the show also has an ugly side, which involves the lineup of representatives from various countries, states and other jurisdictions trying to lure manufacturing with the promise of lower costs, primarily labor costs. "It's not just the glitz and glamor of watching airplanes do tricks in the sky," he said.

IAM represents about 100,000 workers at aerospace companies including Boeing, Lockheed ( LMT) and GE ( GE) and at engine makers Pratt and Whitney and Rolls-Royce. The unionized jobs involve highly skilled workers who generally are compensated at high levels. But in nearly every case, distant locales are trying to lure the work. Often, the companies listen eagerly.

Buffenbarger said the only way to protect U.S. jobs is through bargaining. "The issue of job security is important to us, and it's incumbent upon us for that to be something we protect in our contract," he said.

"The first time I went to Farnborough was two years ago," he added. "I was shocked at what I saw, in the sense that our employers from here were over there trying to pimp our products to other countries with lower wage rates and more onerous labor laws.

"China has a big presence, and they want the work," he said. "But it's not just China. You have Vietnam, South Korea and Eastern European countries."

Additionally, some U.S. states tout their low unionization rates. At the Farnborough show two years ago, Buffenbarger anonymously visited a booth where South Carolina was seeking to lure aerospace companies, following Boeing's 2009 announcement that it would build a 787 assembly plant in North Charleston.

He recalled the scene. "I said to the lady, 'Why should I bring work to South Carolina?' and she said 'because we have a great environment,' and the second thing out of her mouth was 'we are a non-union state. We refuse to allow unions to exist in South Carolina.' I kept asking her questions until she said, 'What company are you with?' I said 'I represent the Machinists union,' and she shut up. She did not expect anyone from the labor movement at the air show.'"

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