At stake is leadership of 332,000 dues-paying members of the
International Association of Machinists and Aerospace workers, which
represents workers as diverse as airline ticket agents, wood workers
and lobstermen, as well as about 32,000 workers in the Seattle area
who assemble Boeing jetliners.
About 570,000 active and retired members are eligible to vote in
April at more than 1,000 local lodges in the United States and
Canada, the first vote of its kind since 1961. Results are expected
to be announced in May.
But the Boeing workers may offer an early glimpse of members'
sentiment. The workers, members of IAM District 751, are the first
and largest group to vote, and the ballot counting is open to union
observers. Members said that as the paper slips are tallied and
placed in piles at the Seattle union hall Thursday night, it may be
possible to literally see the votes stack up.
Some workers say they are intent on ousting incumbent union leaders
after a recent contract agreement with Boeing froze their pensions
in exchange for job security, an issue closely tied to current IAM
International President R. Thomas Buffenbarger, who has held the
post since 1997.
"Even people who voted 'yes' on the last contract say a leadership
change should happen," said Shannon Ryker, a third-generation Boeing
machinist who runs a Facebook page, Rosie's Machinists 751, that
proclaims: "Give Buffy the Boot."
The contract extended an existing labor accord by eight years. In
exchange for Boeing's placement of its newest jet program, the 777X,
in Washington state, the IAM workers agreed to a freeze in pension
contributions and accepted a 401(k)-style savings plan instead.
The extension guaranteed Boeing labor peace by preventing District
751 workers from striking until the contract expires in 2024. But it
roiled the machinists, many of whom are bitter about the way the
deal was handled by Buffenbarger.
After rejecting the deal by a 2-1 margin in November, the members
narrowly approved a slightly revised offer in January. The vote
revealed deep divisions in District 751 between older workers who
refused to vote against pensions and younger workers who thought the
longer-term safety of their jobs was more important.
Many also thought that the second vote should not have happened and
blamed Buffenbarger for holding a vote over objections of District
But other issues also are motivating the challengers seeking the
president, secretary-treasurer and eight general vice president
positions. Their slate of 10 candidates aims to shake up what they
see as an overpaid leadership more concerned with protecting dues
than worker benefits.
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Jay Cronk, a Metro-North Railroad mechanic in New Haven,
Connecticut, who is challenging Buffenbarger for IAM president, said
that with membership declining, top leaders' salaries should not
keep rising and they should not have a private jet for travel.
He and some Seattle area officials say the incumbents have tried
to keep the election quiet in hopes that many members won't turn out
"I'm hoping for a big turnout," Cronk said in an interview on Sunday
at a union meeting in Renton, Washington, where machinists build
But international leaders say this is the most publicized election
in IAM history, with notices sent to all active and retired members.
That was done after the IAM was cited by the U.S. Department of
Labor last year for insufficient notice about nominations, and the
union agreed to redo that process.
"If we're keeping it a secret, we're not doing a very good job,"
said Frank Larkin, a spokesman for the international.
Labor experts said the election shows unusual discord, since unions
ordinarily seek solidarity. It also could bring a more militant
stance, in which the potential for a strike is greater, to the union
if the vote ousts the incumbents.
In supporting the contract extension, Buffenbarger appeared to be
fighting "a rearguard action" to protect jobs over benefits, said
Leon Grunberg, a professor at the University of Puget Sound in
If Buffenbarger is defeated, "that would be a very significant
signal of resistance to these kinds of concessions."
But, he noted, incumbents rarely lose, and if Buffenbarger wins
comfortably, the election "will be just a blip" in a 126-year-old
union's history. "It won't change the trends in the labor movement
that point to further diminishment of union power."
(Editing by Douglas Royalty)
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