Tom Wroblewski, the new district president of the Boeing Machinists union, leads crucial contract negotiations that climax in lockdown, late-into-the-night talks at a SeaTac hotel this month.
Tom Wroblewski says he wants to change the dance between the Machinists union and Boeing, a dance to disaster that has led to three strikes in the 19 years he’s been a union activist.
“How can we change the way we’ve negotiated in the past, so we can break this cycle of striking” is how he characterizes the focus of early conversations with Doug Kight, Boeing’s top labor negotiator. “Because we can’t carry on this way.”
As International Association of Machinists (IAM) District 751 president, Wroblewski knows well that the public positions of both sides during contract talks can often be mere posturing.
“It seems like it’s always that way, that you are heading for a strike. … Then, toward the end, it starts coming together,” he said. “That’s the game. That’s the dance.”
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Yet he’s still disappointed in how the talks played out this summer after a promising spring when Kight and Boeing Commercial Airplanes Chief Executive Scott Carson initiated a more open atmosphere.
“I thought the idea was, let’s change the dance,” said Wroblewski. “Well, OK. If we are going to change the dance, someone’s got to give, don’t they?”
He concedes that getting to a healthier relationship with Boeing would mean he’d have to give something too. But his members believe they were shorted in two previous contracts, so he cannot offer too much in the way of concessions.
“It’d be uncomfortable,” he said.
Wroblewski, 54, grew up in East Grand Forks, Minn., where his dad worked on the railways and was a member of the railroad union.
His first job out of school was in a machine shop in Fargo, N.D., making farm equipment. It was an IAM shop. Wroblewski moved up from operating machines to working as a quality inspector.
On a Monday in June 1978, he and his workmates were surprised when a mechanic in their group returned from visiting relatives in Seattle and handed in his notice. He was leaving to work as a quality inspector at Boeing.
Wroblewski was only six weeks married, but after work that Wednesday, he piled in a car with two workmates and drove 25 hours to Seattle in search of a new start. They knew no one in the big city.
First thing Friday morning, they applied at Boeing’s then-world headquarters beside Boeing Field. The receptionist told them they should hear something within two weeks.
“Lady, we just drove here from Fargo, North Dakota,” Wroblewski said they told her. “We ain’t got two weeks.”
They were granted initial interviews that day, took a medical and vision test and were told to show up at Auburn the next Monday for a machine-shop interview.
Wroblewski and his mates were hired; he became a quality inspector.
The starting pay wasn’t a big step up, but the benefits were great and it took just two years for his wage to soar to top scale. Welcome to the IAM at Boeing.
Wroblewski lives in Kent now and doesn’t miss the humid summers and bitter winters of his roots. “This is God’s country,” he said.
Wroblewski was groomed for the job as district president by his predecessor, Mark Blondin (now national IAM aerospace coordinator who will be deeply involved in the contract talks). As district president, Wroblewski heads a staff of about 30 full-time union officials.
At the Machinists’ impressive headquarters building in South Park, visitors enter Wroblewski’s spacious office through an anteroom.
With a large curved desk and a separate seating area, it’s bigger than his counterpart Kight’s office at Boeing.
Wroblewski expresses a high regard for both Kight and Carson, who also are new to their lead roles at this year’s contract talks.
“They’re decent people,” he said. “They’re personable.”
He contrasts that with their predecessors — lead negotiator Jerry Calhoun and CEO Alan Mulally — with whom the union relationship was icy because of the constant layoffs from 1998 through 2004.
When Kight delivers a company proposal, he lays out the thinking behind it and listens to Wroblewski’s response. Carson and Wroblewski meet every quarter.
One concern the union has is how much influence Boeing corporate in Chicago will exert over the contract, particularly the medical benefits and pension provisions — costs that Boeing wants to rein in across the company.
Boeing Chairman and Chief Executive Jim McNerney keeps his distance. He has met Wroblewski only once, and that was in a meeting with others including IAM national leader Tom Buffenbarger.
There’s no question Wroblewski is aiming for a gold-plated labor agreement.
“Our proposal reflects substantial increases in every area of the contract,” he said. “That’s how it is.”
This is not greed, he said, but payback for the contracts negotiated in 2002 after the Sept. 11 downturn and 2005, when the industry was still in poor shape.
“Our last two contracts, we have been at the mercy of the company. When they were in the driver’s seat, they came at us with take-aways,” Wroblewski said.
“With all the profits, the backlog of orders, the 787 coming on line, it’s our turn to be aggressive now.”
Yet despite the tough negotiating stance, he sees himself as offering the company a chance at a fresh start with the relationship.
He says for example that he has made concessions to help get the much-delayed 787 Dreamliner program back in shape, concessions that were sometimes unpopular with his members.
Offered an assurance Boeing would continue to hire in the Puget Sound region — it desperately needs workers here — Wroblewski allowed the company to bend labor-agreement rules and draft IAM people from Boeing’s military unit in Wichita, Kan., under threat of being laid off to come here and supplement the area work force.
That upset some IAM members whose sons or daughters had failed to get hired.
“I’ve been making those gestures,” Wroblewski said.
Now, he’s looking to the company for a grand gesture that could begin to repair the fractured relationship.
“We are dealing with a company that’s boasted $13 billion in after-tax profits over the last five years,” he said. “We’re not the ones who’ll be making the moves. The company has to.”
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org