Boeing Contract Fight Fuels Effort To Oust Top Leaders Of The Machinists Union

Apr 3, 2014

Boeing machinists in the Puget Sound region have a rare chance to head to the polls Thursday and vote on who should run their union’s national headquarters. It’s the first contested election for the top leadership posts in more than 50 years, and lingering anger over the recent Boeing contract extension vote is fueling an effort to oust the union leaders.

'They Were Really Not Elections, Per Se'

Jason Redrup is a longtime machinist and most recently a business representative in District Lodge 751. But over the years, even he didn’t pay that much attention to the process of electing new national union leaders.

“They were really not elections, per se, because they didn’t have anybody running against them,” Redrup said. “It was almost like reading the minutes. It’s like we’d get somebody to read off the list of names and they’d be nominated, and that’s the last we’d hear of it.”

But now, there is actually an election happening, and Redrup is one of the reformers running to replace the union’s leaders. Over the weekend, Boeing machinists gathered in Renton to prepare to get out the vote, each of them walking out the door with stacks of sample ballots and fliers listing the reform ticket candidates.

Not Since 1961

This is the first time since 1961 that the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers is having a contested election for the top posts. It wouldn’t have even taken place except the Department of Labor investigated a complaint about last year’s nomination process and ordered a do-over.

Jay Cronk, a railroad mechanic in Connecticut, is trying to unseat international president Tom Buffenbarger. Cronk used to be a staffer in the international headquarters until he was fired a week after announcing his campaign.

“What has developed is this culture of privilege for the very elite few at the top and no expense is spared for them for their convenience. And those expenses are all borne by our membership,” Cronk said.

'Outraged'

But what’s driving the reform effort in the Seattle area is residual anger over the Boeing contract extension offer. In January, members narrowly accepted the plan that phases out their defined-benefit pension in exchange for securing production of the 777x jet. 

Machinists union members and supporters cheer at a rally asking members to vote against a proposed contract Jan. 2, 2014, in Seattle.
Machinists union members and supporters cheer at a rally asking members to vote against a proposed contract Jan. 2, 2014, in Seattle.
Credit Elaine Thompson / AP Photo

Many machinists are upset with Buffenbarger for overriding the local leaders’ wishes and putting the offer up for a vote. Local leaders had said it wasn’t enough of an improvement from an offer rejected in November.

Frustration over that contract vote spurred Patrick Maloney, a Boeing machinist in Portland, to join the ticket as a candidate for general vice president. He says it’s common for companies like Boeing to try to wring concessions from workers. But he says he expects his union to fight that.

“You don’t expect your union leadership to climb in bed with the union busters and the corporation and help facilitate this and that’s what outraged me with the machinist leadership,” Maloney said. (Read more excerpts from the reform candidates' interviews

'All We Did Is Require Our Members To Make A Decision'

But Buffenbarger, in a rare interview, said it was more democratic to allow members to vote on the offer than to prevent them from doing so.

Tom Buffenbarger speaks to Boeing Co. workers July 16, 2008 in Seattle.
Tom Buffenbarger speaks to Boeing Co. workers July 16, 2008 in Seattle.
Credit Ted S. Warren / AP Photo

“This is amazing to me because all we did is require our members to make a decision,” said Buffenbarger, who has been IAM's international president since 1997.

Buffenbarger says it’s unfair to say he struck a concessionary deal with the company. The offer, he says, was worth a billion dollars more than the one from November and he had to put it to a vote.

“It’s our policy and procedures under our constitution that you have to vote the last, final offer from a company, or an improved offer,” he said.

Boeing 777x Decision Was 'Imminent'

Machinists like Redrup and Maloney also fault Buffenbarger for scheduling the vote on Jan. 3, when many workers were out of town on vacation. They say that allowed the international to exclude older workers with more seniority who were more likely to be traveling and less likely to support the contract offer that froze their pension.

Buffenbarger says it was Boeing’s tight deadline that forced a vote on that date and the company was prepared to announce that it had chosen a different location for the 777x wing plant as soon as the day after the vote.

“A decision was imminent,” Buffenbarger said. “They would have announced the plant would have been built somewhere else on Jan. 4.”

Preserved Local Jobs

A worker walks past a nearly completed Boeing 737 airplane in Renton, Wash.
A worker walks past a nearly completed Boeing 737 airplane in Renton, Wash.
Credit Ted S. Warren / AP Photo

Buffenbarger says he didn’t push members to vote one way or the other, but the approval secured local jobs, including a promise to keep building the 737 in Renton.

“So we’ve guaranteed the work for Renton for the next 10 years, and we guaranteed the 777x would be built in Puget Sound as well as the wing plant,” he said. (Read more excerpts from Buffenbarger's interview)

As for what Cronk says is a culture of privilege, Buffenbarger says he’s only had raises in line with inflation since the year 2000. His base salary last year was about $260,000. The reformers say that’s too much pay at a time when membership has been shrinking.  

Reform Trend

The reform effort under way in the machinists union is not an isolated event, says labor journalist Steve Early, author of "Save Our Unions: Dispatches From A Movement In Distress" and a former longtime staffer with the Communications Workers of America.

American Postal Workers Union shop steward Gwen Mason of Washington, D.C., and other postal workers from across the country march around the historic 30th Street post office in Philadelphia, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2006.
American Postal Workers Union shop steward Gwen Mason of Washington, D.C., and other postal workers from across the country march around the historic 30th Street post office in Philadelphia, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2006.
Credit Matt Rourke / AP Photo

The American Postal Workers Union recently elected a slate of local leaders who promised to fight harder to secure better contracts at the bargaining table. Reformers have also won elections in recent years in the New York State Nurses Association as well as in teachers’ unions in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

“When unions are under attack, when employers are on the offensive, and when existing union leaders are not helping members fight back, members will find new leaders,” Early said.

Still, it’s a long shot for the machinist reformers to topple the union leadership, according to Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education.

“The reality is that, like elections for public office, incumbents have tremendous power. They have long-term relationships, they have the ability to make appointments, they have the ability to be much more visible in terms of the public eye,” Wong said. “Insurgent candidates have an uphill fight, and the case of the machinists is no exception.”

A Tough Undertaking

Maloney doesn’t deny that the effort by him and other reformers to take the reins of the union is a tough undertaking.

“You have to have a great deal of faith in what you’re doing and in your creator to get something like this accomplished, because there has not been a contested election since I was 6 years old,” he said.

Machinists in Portland where Maloney is from will vote on April 12. Voting takes place across the country throughout the month of April, and final results won’t be known until May.