Tom Wroblewski, local leader of the Machinists union at Boeing, announced Tuesday night that he’ll retire effective Jan. 31 for health reasons.
His stepping down comes at a tumultuous moment for the union, whose 32,000 members are badly split. An election for Wroblewski’s replacement will be organized in the coming days, and the next leader will then face a massive task to create unity within the union.
The recent vote that passed a contract extension to secure the building of the 777X jet in Washington state split the membership bitterly and almost down the middle.
Wilson Ferguson, vice president of the Local A unit, said Tuesday night that whoever is elected, “the big job is healing, bringing the membership back home.”
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He said many in the union anticipate that Boeing will come to the union with further demands before the newly agreed contract expires in 2024.
“In a lot sooner than 10 years, they’ll be back at us,” Ferguson said. “We need to be ready.”
Explaining his abrupt decision, Wroblewski cited the stress of the past three months, as Boeing forced concessions on his members.
Since November, he’s been under pressure not only from the company but also from his own members, from local politicians, and from the union’s International leadership in D.C.
Wroblewski was clearly torn by the pressure.
In early November, he acquiesced to the will of the International, overruling his own local leadership team and staff who opposed an initial vote on the Boeing offer. In the days before that vote, Wroblewski steadfastly refused to offer his own opinion on the Boeing offer in public.
Then, at an emotional union-hall meeting where he was berated and insulted by members who wanted the offer rejected, Wroblewski finally revealed his feelings. He tore up a copy of the offer and called it a “piece of crap.”
Boeing’s offer was rejected by a big margin.
In the next round of negotiations, Wroblewski sided with his local officials and ignored pressure from the International — which then overruled him and scheduled the second vote on Jan. 3, in which the members narrowly accepted the revised offer.
According to people with knowledge of Wroblewski’s condition, an ulcer required surgery and two stays in the hospital since Dec. 27.
The experience “changed my perspective on work-life balance,” Wroblewski told a routine meeting of the union’s District Council Tuesday night. “Your job should not destroy your health.”
Because of that, he said, “I am stepping down from a job I have loved for more than 20 years.”
Wroblewski’s term was to run until February 2016. As he announced his departure, he called on the union’s leadership and members to come together.
One person close to the union leadership, who asked not to be named, said that the group of activists that has generally steered the union will likely get together in the next few days and agree on a candidate.
One name mentioned is Jon Holden, a business rep who led opposition in November to Wroblewski’s acquiescence to the first vote.
Ferguson, the Local A leader, also might be nominated. He led the Vote No rallies opposed to the deal.
But Ferguson said there are some in the district more qualified and he wouldn’t stand “without plenty of support from others.”
Bryan Corliss, spokesman for District 751, said no one is quite sure yet of the next step.
Wroblewski grew up in Minnesota and lives in Kent. He joined the IAM in his first job in Fargo, N.D.
He started work for Boeing in 1978 as a quality inspector. He became a union steward, then in 1992 a full-time union official.
Elected District 751 president in April 2007, he was re-elected in 2008 and 2012.
A quiet, reserved man, Wroblewski generally avoided conflict, according to those who know him. But with Boeing’s hardball 777X negotiations, his leadership ended in a blaze of confrontation and hostility.