New Machinists leader says he’s focused on healing divisions

SEATTLE — Jon Holden’s a true believer.

The third-generation union member doesn’t doubt that organized labor gives members better lives, and as the newly elected head of the Machinists union representing Boeing workers, he aims to deliver.

But first he has to restore member confidence in local union leadership and heal the bitter internal split wrought by negotiations with Boeing which in January landed the 777X in Everett in exchange for ending pensions and other concessions.

The acrimony was too much for Holden’s predecessor, Tom Wroblewski, who resigned a few weeks later, citing health issues.

Earlier this month, Holden garnered 76 percent of the votes in a three-way race to succeed Wroblewski as president of Seattle-based District Lodge 751 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), which represents about 33,000 members, most of them in Western Washington.

The Boeing contract pitted local labor leaders against the Machinists union’s international headquarters, whose leaders face their own threat at the ballot box next month from a slate of reform candidates.

Holden is staying away from the big-picture politics and says he’s focused on healing his district.

“As long as you’re looking for ways to improve the membership’s lives, then you’re on the right path,” Holden said during an interview this week with The Daily Herald. “You get a bunch of curves along the way, it never goes according to plan.”

Union activism has always been a part of Holden’s personal plan.

Holden, 41, lives in Bothell with his wife and three children. He grew up in the area, listening to union stories from his father, a retired Teamster, and his grandfather, who was in the pattern-maker and boilermaker unions.

Before joining Boeing, Holden was himself a Teamster for Safeway. In 1997, he went to work at Boeing as a tool expediter. He soon became active in the IAM as a shop steward, then an organizer and finally an elected business representative.

But Holden isn’t all union all the time. He tries to balance work and family, he said.

He goes skeet shooting when he can, but “it’s been a little while,” he said.

Many members on both sides of the January contract vote are still upset with the union. People who opposed the contract say district leaders didn’t stand up for members, while members who voted yes say district leaders didn’t really represent members by trying to block a vote on Boeing’s offer.

Local leaders including Holden opposed the deal, which they said came with too many concessions, effectively undoing decades of negotiations and several strikes.

But IAM international President Tom Buffenbarger stepped in to force a vote on the contract, which narrowly passed Jan. 3.

Members “deserve better than they’ve had,” Holden said to a couple of hundred members at district headquarters after being sworn in. “We’re going to give them better than they’ve had.”

From volunteering to building wheelchair ramps to walking a picket line, District Lodge 751 members are among the strongest and most active in the country, Holden said. “I’m proud of this membership.”

Holden knows what its like to get up in front of a few thousand angry Machinists. He did it in 2008 after members voted to go on strike, and then district leaders extended negotiations for three days.

Wroblewski thought the union had a chance to work out an acceptable last-minute deal.

The decision angered many members, said Lester Mullen, a Machinists shop steward in Everett at the time. “They were angry that their vote didn’t mean anything. I was angry myself.”

As a steward, he had to explain the decision to people on the shop floor.

“A lot of them didn’t want to hear what you had to say,” Mullen said.

Holden and two other business representatives also went to Boeing’s Everett plant to talk to members.

“We just walked down into the thousands of people” and let them talk, he said. “They just wanted to be heard.”

Holden’s confidence and candor impressed Jason Redrup, a district business representative based in Everett.

“He’s not afraid to get into the middle of it,” he said.

Holden supporters say he can restore members’ faith in the union.

“Our membership needs to know that our local leadership has its back,” Mullen said. “There’s been a lot of trust lost throughout this process.”

Rebuilding members’ confidence will take time, Holden said.

He has a long-term strategy for re-engaging and empowering members by increasing their access to the district’s decision- making process, through steps such as regular reports about ongoing talks with employers, leadership development, member surveys and town hall-style meetings.

Historically, big decisions in District Lodge 751 have been made out of sight of members, and power resided with the handful of activists who show up for lodge meetings and rotate through lower leadership positions.

Holden is one of those activists. But he effectively wants to smash that model.

Members are already responding, he said.

Dozens of shop-floor workers showed up to share ideas for the district at local lodge meetings during Holden’s first week in office.

Longtime district staff members said members rarely turn out to regular meetings like that.

Still, Holden is not getting excited.

“None of it’s going to be easy,” he said.

Indeed, across the country, unions face an uphill fight in the private sector.

Economic pressure and the ability of companies to shift work means many people are worried about holding onto jobs, said Art Wheaton, a faculty member and labor relations expert at the Worker Institute at Cornell University.

Earlier this year, the United Auto Workers were dealt a tough defeat when workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee voted against joining the union. VW had actually stayed out of the debate, but outside anti-union groups stepped in to oppose UAW expansion in the South.

Right-to-work laws have been passed by 24 states, including longtime bastions of organized labor such as Michigan and Indiana. Companies in many industries face increasing pressure to keep costs down, and employers have developed very sophisticated anti-union campaigns, said Charlotte Garden, a professor and labor law expert at Seattle University’s School of Law.

A cultural shift also seems to have taken place, and unions aren’t as big a part of people’s social and day-to-day lives as they once were, she said.

For decades, many unions narrowed their focus to working on member compensation and working conditions. “But unions are going back to a model where they’re thinking more broadly” and fighting for social justice issues, such as minimum wage increases and immigration reform, she said.

Adopting a more activist mentality makes unions more relevant to members lives, because the unions are working for a particular vision of society, rather than just a better contract, Garden said.

For now, though, Holden is focused on healing District Lodge 751.

“Our role now is to give people the opportunity to be involved, to steer this union. No one person steers this union.”

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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