As divided as the Machinists union members are its leaders. Here’s a closer look at two who stand on opposite sides at this crucial moment:
The longtime right-hand man of Machinists union International President Tom Buffenbarger, Rich Michalski led the union side of the Boeing 777X negotiations along with District 751 president Tom Wroblewski.
After the union leadership rejected Boeing’s offer Thursday, Michalski in an interview talked up the improvements Boeing had made to the offer. He also went against Wroblewski in suggesting that the members should be given a chance to decide on the offer.
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Starting as a welder at General Electric in Milwaukee, Wis., Michalski over a 45-year career worked his way up in the Machinists union to general vice president — essentially second-in-command of the 720,000-strong IAM, one of the most powerful and politically influential unions in the nation.
He was deeply involved in both the union’s failed Boeing negotiations in 2009, when management chose South Carolina for a second 787 line, and the successful negotiations in 2011 that won the 737 MAX for Washington state.
On the night last month when the votes on the first Boeing 777X offer were counted, Michalski stood out in the Machinists Seattle union hall because of his expensive tailored suit and his highly polished shoes.
Michalski carries himself with a steely hauteur and dresses like a lobbyist as accustomed to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., as to union halls.
He wields the influence of the union’s membership and money in presidential and Congressional elections and in the politics of government contracts. Because of that latter role, he’s close to Boeing Senior Vice President Tim Keating, the company’s chief government lobbyist in D.C.
When Boeing finally secured the Air Force tanker order in 2011, Keating and Michalski opened a celebratory bottle of wine together.
Sen. Patty Murray and other congressional leaders, as well as Keating, attended Michalski’s retirement party at a hotel near the Capitol when he officially stepped down in July.
The union then hired him as a consultant specifically to lead the Boeing 777X negotiations.
When differences in negotiating approach between the local and the International first emerged last month, Michalski’s consultant status raised some hackles among local union officials, who questioned why someone no longer in the union gets to take a lead role.
This past week Wroblewski, dismissing Michalski’s comments about the improved Boeing offer, referred to him as “the retired leader from our International headquarters.”
But IAM International president Buffenbarger said Michalski was acting in the negotiations as his direct representative.
“Rich was brought in because he’s a good negotiator and he’s hard-nosed,” Buffenbarger said.
During intense 777X negotiations before the first contract vote last month, Tom Wroblewski was caught in the middle between the International leadership of the Machinists and his own local union officials and staff.
According to people present at two contentious internal union meetings, the local elected officials and staff voted 2-to-1 to reject the original Boeing 777X offer and not even put it to a vote.
But Wroblewski, siding with the International representative Rich Michalski, overruled them and scheduled a vote.
In the days that followed, Wroblewski steadfastly refused to offer his own opinion on the Boeing offer in public.
Apparently under pressure to say only positive things about the offer, he could be drawn to say only that it would secure jobs.
Then, at an emotional union-hall meeting where he was berated and insulted by angry members who wanted the offer rejected, Wroblewski finally revealed his hidden feelings. He tore up a copy of the offer and called it a “piece of crap.”
In the second round of negotiations that began Tuesday and collapsed on Thursday, Wroblewski seemed determined not to repeat that performance.
This time, he firmly sided with his local officials and ignored pressure from the International. He turned down Boeing’s revised offer and denied a vote on it.
“We couldn’t in good faith encourage you to vote for a proposal like this — which would destroy our retirement benefits, significantly raise medical costs and sharply limit your future earnings,” Wroblewski told his members the next day.
Born in North Dakota, 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 in Auburn. He became a union steward on the shop floor, then in 1992 a full-time union official.
Elected District 751 president in April 2007, he leads the Boeing Puget Sound-area bargaining unit with almost 31,000 members.
A quiet, reserved man, Wroblewski rarely gives interviews.
Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org