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Kent's Wroblewksi leaves his legacy as union leader

Machinists Union District 751 President Tom Wroblewski chats with then-Gov. Chris Gregoire at the 2011 Paris Air Show. - Courtesy photo/IAM 751
Machinists Union District 751 President Tom Wroblewski chats with then-Gov. Chris Gregoire at the 2011 Paris Air Show.
— image credit: Courtesy photo/IAM 751

For the Reporter

Tom Wroblewksi chatted with presidents, cheered new airplanes and chaired history-making meetings, but his proudest accomplishments were those that brought direct benefits to his union members.

Wroblewski, a 59-year-old Kent resident, retired Jan. 31 as president of Machinists Union District Lodge 751, the largest labor union for Boeing workers and one of the largest on the West Coast.

"You work vacation issues," Wroblewski said. "You work seniority issues. Help people calculate their pensions. It was always about the members. It was always about the people. If we could help someone, that's what we're here for."

Wroblewski had served as District 751's president and directing business representative from April 1, 2007, until Jan. 31. Prior to that, he had served three years as the union's grievance coordinator, and 15 years as a business representative.

Before he went to work for the union, Wroblewski had been a quality control inspector for Boeing's Auburn-based fabrication division. He had joined Boeing in 1978, after a brief stint working as a Machinist for a company in North Dakota, where he'd moved after graduating from high school in Minnesota.

Wroblewski cited health concerns for his decision to retire before the end of his current term as president. The fight over Boeing's demands for a contract extension this winter put him in the hospital twice.

Wroblewski said his No. 1 goal in retirement is to "get healthy."

"I'm going to join a stress-free world," he said. "Then I'm going to look at some hobbies. I let the job run me for too many years."

Wroblewski said one of his proudest accomplishments was working out a settlement with Boeing that ensured that nearly 200 union members were paid fairly, after Boeing offered higher pay to people doing the same jobs.

The settlement totaled close to $1 million for the entire group.

He said he told Boeing that "if that's what you want to do, that's fine, but we've got to take a look at everyone. You've got to do it for everyone."

In the years since, Wroblewski has become a figure on the state – and even national – stage. As the leader of the state's largest labor union, he says he's been "on a first name basis, just a phone call away," from governors, mayors and corporate leaders.

"This district does wield a lot of weight, and we can influence decisions," Wroblewski said.

He described President Obama – whom he met in Everett in 2012 – as "very personable, very real." Obama asked detailed questions about the union and the work its members do, and included those answers in a nationally televised speech a few minutes later, Wroblewski recalled.

Wroblewski also said he was impressed with then Vice President Al Gore, who "really took the time to talk with my son," who was a third-grader at the time.

Work for the next generation

Wroblewski and other union leaders worked closely with Washington's elected officials for nearly a decade to ensure that Machinists working at Boeing would get to build the next generation of aerial refueling tankers for the U.S. Air Force. Work is underway on the first of them today.

Another major career milestone, Wroblewski said, was helping to negotiate the 2011 contract extension with Boeing, which ensured the 737 MAX would be build in Puget Sound and brought pay raises and retirement benefit increases to individual workers.

"That was huge, for job security for the region," he said.

Wroblewski said he was thrilled to attend the first flights of Boeing's 787 and 747-8 jets, and to represent the union at the 2011 Paris Air Show. He said he's proud of the work that the union and its members have done to get Boeing's 787 program back on track.

Along the way he wracked up some honors: a Mother Jones award from the Washington State Labor Council for his successful fights against the Boeing Co., and a Chairman's Award from the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance for his willingness to compromise with it. He also was honored by Guide Dogs of America with its "Gift of Sight" award; under Wroblewski's leadership, District 751 raised close to $2 million for the charity.

But it's the day-to-day work of the union that he hopes will be his legacy, Wroblewski said.

"Every union rep has people who will always remember them, for that they did for them personally," he said. "I hope I'll be remembered as a compassionate individual, someone who listened, but didn't sugarcoat it. You don't always tell them what they want to hear, but at least if you're upfront with them about it, you can feel good about your job."

"I think back to starting out," he said, "building tractors in Fargo, N.D. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd end up with the kind of job I had here."

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