Ex-IAM 751 President Bill Johnson dies at 69

SEATTLE – Bill Johnson, the former union president who led Machinists Union District Lodge 751 through one of its most-tumultuous periods, has died after a fight with cancer. He was 69.

BillJohnsonJohnson died Tuesday, March 5, 2013, at his home in Seattle.

Johnson’s family is not planning a funeral. District 751 plans a memorial service at 2 p.m. March 23 at the Seattle Union Hall.

Johnson was born Feb. 13, 1944, to William and Opal Johnson of Seattle, and later graduated from Ballard High School.

He worked for the Boeing Co. at the old Plant 2 as a journeyman machinist and was a mid-level Machinists Union activist working quietly behind the scenes before a series of events thrust him into the spotlight as president of the most-influential labor union in Washington state from 1992 through 2000.

“He stepped in, he stepped up and he took on the job,” said current District 751 President Tom Wroblewski. “He didn’t do it for himself.”

As president, Johnson established programs that are important parts of the union today: including the Work Transfer Committees that make the case against Boeing outsourcing proposals and the Machinists Volunteer Program that has built nearly 320 wheelchair ramps for Puget Sound families.

Johnson also made moves to make the union more inclusive, appointing the district’s first female and African-American business representatives.

Crucially, Johnson fought off a 1997 Boeing proposal to move 737 production to Long Beach, Calif., and formed a working group with Boeing management that helped resolve 737 production issues.

That he achieved all this was remarkable, considering he had not sought out a top leadership role in the union.

His predecessor, Tom Baker, had been the charismatic, larger-than-life leader of District 751 throughout the 1980s. He served three terms as union president but became involved in a series of scandals. Johnson was recruited to run as Baker’s replacement, winning a hotly contested union election in 1991.

Prior to that, Johnson “was never looking for the spotlight,” Wroblewski said. “He was a behind-the-scenes kind of guy.”

Johnson led the union through the difficult 69-day strike of 1995, and successfully negotiated the 1999 contract, which allowed the union to contest Boeing outsourcing proposals and improved health and retirement benefits.

Johnson played a key role in keeping Boeing’s 737 program in Renton. After the 1997 merger of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, managers of the newly merged company proposed moving a share of 737 final assembly work to the McDonnell Douglas plant in Long Beach, Calif.

Johnson responded with a campaign to put public pressure on Boeing. He also invited Phil Condit – Boeing’s CEO at the time – to a summit, where the company and union thrashed out a plan to keep 737 final assembly work in Renton.

Johnson established what is now called the Machinists Volunteer Program.

Today, union “MVPs” are known for building wheelchair ramps – nearly 320 of them since 1997. Volunteers also feed the homeless at missions in Everett and Tacoma and support the Salvation Army, United Way, Northwest Harvest and Guide Dogs of America.  The union has been honored three times by the White House for outstanding community service.

Johnson “came into this district under some tough times, picking up the pieces from a lot of turmoil from the previous administration,” Wroblewski said. “He wanted to make sure this organization survived, and always wanted to do what was best for this membership.”

Johnson is survived by his wife, Diane; his daughter, Christine Hinsee, son-in-law John Hinsee and grandsons John and Jordan Hinsee, of Seatte;  sister Donna Habel of Seattle; cousin Bob Thompson of Kingston; and other family members. He was preceded in death by a brother, Martin Johnson.

5 Responses to “Ex-IAM 751 President Bill Johnson dies at 69”
  1. Racer X says:

    Good bye Bill, you had integrity and honor and your sense of humor was off the charts. Robley

  2. Joe Perry says:

    Bill was a great person with a great since of humor, took me under his wing & showed me a lot of things during the 2008 strike, which I do now, Joe

  3. Roy Diteman Id says:

    I worked for Bill for four years. He always stayed the same. A great guy with a quick
    smile. A great Leader. God Bless you Bill.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] The Machinists Volunteer Program was established in 1997 by the late Bill Johnson, when he was District 751’s president. Johnson died March 5. […]

  2. […] obituary of Bill Johnson, the former District 751 president who died in March after a battle with […]

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