Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Seattle: Coffee and Planes?

It's curious, but despite the fact that I had probably the fullest itinerary of meetings and visits in Seattle than for any of the cities that I've visited so far, I think I ended up with the least complete picture of what it's like to live and work in this city. 

I kicked off with some time with the City Council's Economic Development team.  A really useful overview and lots of stats and info on the city's economy and also the challenges and opportunities it faces.  A few thoughts;
  1. The city is very young - an average age of just over 37 and with just a Bachelor's degree in Seattle you can earn the same as someone with a Master's elsewhere.  
  2. Washington has no state income tax so the fiscal levers that the City or the State has to stimulate job creation are limited to what's know as the local B&O (business and occupation) tax.  There are some lessons for Cities in the UK here with the coming "localisation" of business rates.  
  3. The City's own electricity company (Seattle City Light) is doing some really interesting stuff around energy efficiency and the capital cost of efficiency improvements.
  4. The City is particularly focused on Bio Sciences and promoting the area as a location for film and TV production - both areas that Nottingham is also making great progress on. 
  5. The Economic Development team are deliberately separately branded from the City Council under the Start / Grow / Green banner in order to move away from a perceptions that the city is "anti-business".  
Some useful food for thoughts and I was still processing it when I was collected by a colleague from UFCW Local 21 here in Seattle and taken to meet with representatives from the Boeing Machinists Union - the IAM.  The Machinists are a great bunch - pugnacious, passionate and perceptive.  I didn't have that long but got a good sense of what it was like and is like now to work for Boeing.  There are essentially two key moments - the merger with McDonnell Douglas and the move of the corporate HQ to Chicago.  Again, just a few thoughts;
  1. The Boeing Company made public statements to the effect that they moved some production away from Seattle because of the labour disputes in Seattle - South Carolina was the beneficiary of this move away from the historic home and is a 'right to work' state - ie one with very poor union rights.  
  2. There is a deeply entrenched feeling of ownership and pride in Boeing that is slowly being eroded as the company evolves.  There are many multi-generational families working at the plants.  One member is quoted as saying that he voted 'No' on a strike ballot because "they took away my Christmas in 1995" because the plant was on strike.  
  3. The IAM are highly politically organised, offering a very strong steer to their members on how to vote in the coming elections and running a massive phone-bank out of their union hall.  
Tuesday morning saw me up bright and early to get to the Starbucks HQ in the 'SODO' district of town.  The office (that's it at the top of this post) is two blocks from the Light Rail system so I was excited to use that.  I braved the 5 minute walk and shunned the kind offer of a lift from my contact at Starbucks - they commented that they didn't know anyone who'd ever used the tram system in the 10 years they'd worked there...

I met with the President of New Channel Development and never quite got a full sense of what his job exactly was but had an interesting chat about the company in general.  It was the morning after the revelations in the UK about the tax position of the company - despite much encouragement from people on Twitter I resisted the temptation to ask about this and focused on the company's position in the Seattle business-scape. 

The Starbucks mission statement is, "To inspire and nurture the human spirit, one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time".  We talked quite a bit about the ways that they are delivering on this, including expanding out of straight coffee shops into juice bars and also selling more food and alcohol in the evening.  Interesting stuff.  The company does offer a good benefits package including a good pension to their teams but I kept thinking about the chapters in 'No Logo' that really lay into the working practices - obviously I got a very glossy sheen but I wonder how much the company has really changed from those days.  Hard to tell in such a short space of time and I was certainly impressed with their commitment to local community activities and the fact they deliberately had their national conference in New Orleans shortly after Katrina in order to contribute to the regeneration of the City.  

Finally I spent some time in the afternoon with SPEEA who are the technical, engineering Union at Boeing.  They're currently in the middle of a quite messy contract renegotiation so it was good to get the download on that.   They're similarly proud as the IAM team to work for Boeing and take real pride in being the intellectual heart of the company - the 'No Nerds, No Birds' poster is a great example of this.  Again some thoughts;
  1. The SPEEA team make a very clear set of distinctions between pre-merger and pre-move to Chicago Boeing.  The physical location of the management team now means that they are also culturally distant from the teams on the ground which might mean that they are over-reaching in this current negotiation.  An interesting example of when a company moves away from its 'Company Town' roots.  
  2. The union do a fair amount of lobbying locally and nationally, including some joint work with the company but have made a conscious decision not to engage with the political process - they do not endorse candidates or campaign in elections.  I'm not sure if this doesn't weaken their hand.
  3. There is a cultural difference in the political process between what is known as the 'Seattle Way' - very consensual (and often slow!) decision making and the Chicago rough-and-tumble - this has affected relations between management and the workers,  
Phew.  Lots to take in and I haven't yet formed it into a coherent whole - will need to come back to this at a later date.  

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