Spying, intrigue surround election of machinists at Boeing

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Someone furtively shoots secret surveillance photos as a well-connected political lobbyist arrives for a meeting.

Inside, a mole takes notes and snaps quickly with a cellphone camera.

A third person drops documents and photos at a newspaper office.

No, it’s not a John le Carré spy novel. It’s election time at the Machinists union, representing 25,000 Boeing workers in the Puget Sound area and 2,500 more in Portland and Wichita, Kan.

This month’s contentious internal elections precede crucial contract negotiations that open May 9.

The president of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) District 751, Tom Wroblewski, is the successor to the leadership that in 2005 staged a monthlong Boeing strike.

Ronnie Behnke, a 30-year veteran machine-parts inspector in Auburn, leads an opposition slate called the Unity Coalition that seeks a less acrimonious relationship with Boeing.

Primary-like local lodge elections begin today and continues through May 14. Behnke hopes to challenge Wroblewski in the final June districtwide election.

Claims of election-law violations are routine in union contests. This time, supporters of the incumbent union leadership resorted to cloak-and-dagger tactics in an attempt to prove a violation by the other side.

The evening of April 22, their surreptitious efforts climaxed at a union council meeting where the mole came out from undercover and denounced the Unity slate for receiving guidance from Linda Lanham, a longtime Machinists union lobbyist who jumped ship in January 2006 to lead the state’s aerospace-industry organization, the Aerospace Futures Alliance (AFA).

Boeing provides about half of the AFA’s funding.

Son on ticket

Lanham’s son, Rick Humiston, is a union steward who is running on the Unity ticket. Lanham admits to attending Unity Coalition strategy meetings but insists, “I’m just supporting my son.”

Union leaders don’t buy that and bitterly object to Lanham’s involvement in an internal union election.

“She’s a corporate lobbyist,” Wroblewski said. “It’s totally inappropriate.”

Lanham spent 26 years as the IAM’s political director, becoming the powerful union’s voice in Olympia and gaining the ear of the state’s political elite.

But as AFA director, Lanham successfully lobbied in Olympia this year to kill legislation driven by the Machinists that would have limited anti-organizing activities by employers.

The union leadership sees her now as an opponent.

“We’re appalled we have to go down to Olympia to fight against Linda Lanham,” said Larry Brown, her successor as IAM political director.

“I cannot imagine that a majority of our members would want a group of candidates directed by … an industry lobbyist, to be running their union.”

In an interview, Lanham said she would like the Machinists union to join AFA to help promote jobs here, and she dismissed the idea she is working on Boeing’s behalf.

Lanham said she attended meetings of the Unity candidates but does not direct their strategy.

“If they ask me, I tell them what I think,” she said.

Behnke said she leads the opposition group, not Lanham.

“If I ask her, she’ll help me,” Behnke said. “I bounce ideas off her. She’s a good political strategist.”

“Neanderthal stance”

One of those ideas, Behnke said, is changing what she described as the incumbent leadership’s confrontational, “Neanderthal” stance toward Boeing.

“Threatening the company, in my opinion, is not a very smart business move,” Behnke said.

At last week’s meeting of the union’s district council at its South Park headquarters, Matt Moeller, a jet-engine inspector and union steward who was on the Unity Coalition ticket, asked to speak to the audience of about 150 Machinists.

Moeller rose and nervously read a statement revealing himself as a spy.

He said he had joined Behnke’s ticket only to investigate the extent of Lanham’s rumored involvement in the union election.

Moeller said that at three Unity candidate meetings he attended in March and April, Lanham took a leading role in discussions of the group’s election strategy, and urged them to be less confrontational with Boeing.

Snapping photos

As evidence, he snapped a cellphone photo of Behnke and Lanham sitting alone together at the front of the room, addressing the gathering.

Moeller’s revelation was greeted with raucous cheers and a standing ovation from supporters of the current leadership.

His erstwhile colleagues on the Unity slate were totally blind-sided, Behnke said.

In an interview the next day, Moeller said it had been difficult to stay undercover. Some Machinist friends of his from high school cold-shouldered him as a turncoat. And he didn’t feel good about the spying.

“It’s shady, I know,” he said. “I didn’t like doing that.”

Nevertheless, he said, he carried out the undercover effort because he thought Lanham was attempting to influence the election in a year of sensitive contract negotiations.

In an interview, Lanham called that idea “ridiculous.”

“The only reason I’m doing this is because my son is running,” Lanham said. “The rest is just garbage.”

Behnke called Moeller’s subterfuge “sad.”

“It’s a diversionary tactic by [the incumbent leadership] to try to sway this election.”

Moeller was not alone in spying on the Unity group.

Ed Lutgen, a union official who heads the steward program, took some 300 surreptitious photos of Lanham and others arriving at Unity Coalition meetings.

Another IAM staffer, union organizer Jesse Cote, who is a friend of Lutgen, also participated in the surveillance.

The morning before Moeller’s announcement at the council meeting, Cote delivered to a reporter some of Lutgen’s photos as well as an excerpt from federal labor law that bars officials of any “employer or association of employers” from providing “money or any other thing of value” to union members.

“I don’t want a corporate entity involved with our union politics,” Cote said. “They have no place there.”

When informed of the surveillance by Cote and Lutgen, Behnke was incensed.

“Who do they think they are, the CIA?” she said. “That’s pathetic.”

The federal agency charged with ensuring that union elections comply with labor law is the Office of Labor Management Standards.

Dennis Eckert, acting regional director of the agency, confirmed that employers and their agents are barred from supporting candidates in a union election, either with money, resources or even work on company time.

He declined to comment on Lanham’s involvement with the Machinists slate.

Eckert’s predecessor, John Heaney, did offer an assessment. Heaney retired from the agency two months ago and now works with a company called BallotPoint that helps unions ensure compliance with labor laws.

“If she is advising them as an individual citizen, she certainly can do that,” Heaney said.

“If she’s advising them in her capacity as a representative of an employer, that certainly raises some questions.”

Heaney said it would be a violation of the law if Lanham were using her AFA position to mold “a union that would be more palatable to Boeing.”

The key, he said, would be whether she used any AFA resources. Lanham insisted she’s been careful not to do so.

Union officials Cote and Lutgen said they, too, were careful to do what they did on their own time and not use union resources, which would also be illegal under federal labor law.

Both of them, as well as Moeller, insist they acted without direction from union leaders.

Boeing in a statement said the company is “neutral” in the union’s election.

“We’ll respect the choice of our employees and work with whomever they choose to represent them,” spokesman Tim Healy said.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com