Bill Johnson was a natural bargainer, intimidating when necessary and able to plead when he saw fit, a trait that made him a successful labor-union leader.
“He was a tough negotiator,” said Ed Lutgen, his longtime friend and co-worker. “But he would adapt to the situation. It was eye-opening for me to see him humble himself and do whatever it took to keep people employed.”
Bill Johnson, the president of the Machinists union at Boeing from 1992 to 2000, died at his Seattle home March 8 after a fight with cancer. He was 69.
Friends say Mr. Johnson found joy in helping others. He often committed unrecognized acts of kindness, like when he drove from Seattle to a machinist apprentice’s house in Puyallup while the union was on strike to deliver the young worker’s strike paycheck.
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“He helped more people than you can count, and most of them were people he didn’t know very well,” Lutgen said.
Mr. Johnson was born and raised in Seattle. He graduated from Ballard High School in 1962 and was hired as a machinist for Boeing at the old Plant 2 in 1965. He quickly became an activist for the International Association of Machinists and Workers District Lodge 751 and was elected as a district county delegate.
In 1992 Mr. Johnson was pushed to take on a much larger leadership role. District 751 president Tom Baker was charged with embezzling from the union, and the machinists needed a leader who could re-establish the union’s credibility. The union staff decided Mr. Johnson was the perfect candidate and urged him to run for the position, Lutgen said.
“He was thrust into the presidency because we needed someone with integrity to step up and lead,” Lutgen said.
In 1995 he led the union into what became the second-longest strike in Boeing history. After 45 days on the picket lines, union members rejected their leadership’s recommendation to accept a new Boeing offer.
“That was not a good position to be in as a leader,” said Tom Wroblewski, current president of the now 33,000-member union local. “There were a lot of upset members. At one point people were lined up in the main union hall to talk to him, and he talked to every one of them. That’s not an easy thing to do, when people are screaming and hollering at you.”
Mr. Johnson returned to the bargaining table, getting an improved proposal that brought the strike to a close after 69 days. The following year he was re-elected by only a narrow margin.
In 1998, after Boeing floated the idea of a secondary 737 production plant in Long Beach, Calif., he mounted a campaign of public pressure against the plan, which the firm eventually dropped.
Mr. Johnson helped increase diversity in the union by appointing the district’s first female and African- American business representatives, according to the machinists union.
He created the Machinists Volunteer Program in 1997, which organizes union members for programs such as building wheelchair ramps — members have built 320.
“The goal of the program is to make sure we’re seen as a good community partnership,” said Jon Holden, a union member who volunteered with Mr. Johnson.
Members who are part of the program also volunteer at Northwest Harvest and The Salvation Army, and participate in the Martin Luther King Day March, which Lutgen said was one of Mr. Johnson’s favorites.
“He had a big heart for those who were less fortunate and needed help and assistance,” Holden said.
Mr. Johnson enjoyed collecting things, especially Volkswagen cars and old bicycles.
Survivors include his wife, Dianne Johnson, of Seattle; daughter Christine Hinsee, of Seattle; sister Donna Habel, of Seattle; grandsons John Hinsee Jr. and Jordan Hinsee, of Seattle; and cousin Bob Thompson, of Kingston. He was preceded in death by his brother, Martin Johnson.
District 751 is holding a memorial service at the Seattle Union Hall, 9135 15th Pl. S, Seattle 98108, on March 23 at 2 p.m.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report. Sarah Elson: 206-464-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org