Continuing the fight for democracy in the IAM

May 28, 2014

The International Association of Machinists (IAM) has just completed its first contested election for International officers in more than 50 years. The vote was the result of a Department of Labor ruling that the International violated the democratic rights of members when it prevented a competitive union election for union president and other top offices in 2013.

In this year's election rerun, the IAM Reform slate organized to return democracy to the union and accountability to the membership. The reformers built on a wave of discontent with the pro-company actions of the IAM International leadership late last year. After Boeing workers in Washington state roundly rejected a concessionary contract extension demanded by the company--with the threat that it would move production of the new 777X airliner out of the state--IAM's International leaders joined Boeing's campaign to force it through anyway.

After minor changes in the contract and a massive campaign by politicians of both political parties, the media, elected officials, business leaders, Boeing executives and IAM leaders, workers narrowly accepted the concessions in early January. Despite huge profits at Boeing, the new contract eliminates defined benefit pensions, weakens health care coverage and provides only tiny wage increases. If the contract vote withstands legal challenges, Boeing workers won't be able to negotiate a new contract for 10 years.

All this set the stage for the most successful opposition campaign in the IAM in decades--perhaps ever. The IAM Reform slate won one-third of the national vote despite the leadership's overwhelming advantages. Due to alleged irregularities in the vote--such as IAM officers using union time and money to campaign--the reform slate is challenging the results.

IAM activists Jay Cronk and Shannon Ryker talked to Steve Leigh about their assessment of the IAM election. Cronk was the presidential candidate of the IAM Reform slate, running against incumbent Thomas Buffenbarger, aka "Buffy the pension slayer." Jay was fired from his position at the International union office when he announced his candidacy. He went back to his job as a railroad machinist, from which he carried on the reform campaign.

Ryker is a third-generation Boeing worker in Everett, Wash. In order to oppose the concessionary contract extension, she set up a Facebook page and then launched a rank-and-file caucus, Rosie's Machinists 751, that stands for solidarity and union democracy.

YOU'VE SAID that one of the key issues in the campaign was lack of democracy in the union and a sense of entitlement among the top officers. Were there other key issues that the reform slate organized around?

Jay: The high rate of "per capita tax" and dues within the IAM, which we believe inhibits our ability to attract new members. The reason for the high per capita tax and dues rests in the extravagant salaries and lifestyle of the highest officers of our union, imposing a burden on our members.

Shannon: Restoring our union's democratic voice was always the main issue surrounding the reform movement. However, as turnout for our most recent election suggests, we have a problem with members feeling that it's worthwhile to participate in our union.

A lot of the apathy we witnessed is the result of deliberate actions put in place by current leadership over the years in an effort to maintain power and control over this organization. We need to re-establish our connection with the membership. Members have become complacent after years and years of just allowing the leadership to call all the shots without repercussions. That needs to change if we want to see our union survive.

Jay Cronk, presidential candidate on the Reform IAM slate
Jay Cronk, presidential candidate on the Reform IAM slate

WAS THE election fair? How did the incumbents use their power and position to win re-election?

Jay: From the very beginning, Buffenbarger demonstrated that DOL [Department of Labor] supervision was not something he was concerned with--by terminating me just seven days after the announcement of my candidacy. He continued his disregard for our [union] constitution and the law by working in concert with subordinate bodies to dispatch Grand Lodge [the IAM term for the International office] and district officers throughout the country with the intention of suppressing support for Reform by whatever means necessary, including veiled threats and other coercion.

Shannon: I think the election was tipped in the incumbents' favor from the start. They had established patterns over the course of decades that limited the membership's ability to participate in the election process. As a result, members had become accustomed to not engaging in the process. When the process was presented, they were confused about their role as members, and the incumbents did whatever they could to make the process as complicated and confusing as possible to inhibit participation.

Additionally, it was brought to my attention that union resources might have played a key role in the securing the incumbents' victory. A lot of manpower was dispatched across the nation in the last few weeks of the election. I know complaints have been filed with the DOL regarding improper usage of union resources and ballot discrepancies.

DO YOU think your slate would have won if the election were fair?

Shannon: It's hard to say. When you look at the amount of time we had to prepare and launch a national campaign, and look at the amount of votes we were able to secure in the very limited window of time, it's really an impressive feat. In only four months, a grassroots movement was able to secure approximately 11,000 votes nationwide and in Canada.

If we are able to secure one-third of all votes from the incumbents--regardless of their efforts to cheat and sabotage our campaign--in only four months, what could we do in 12 months? I think we can win.

Jay: Had we been provided with the means to communicate with the membership on the scale available to the incumbents, we would have won by a landslide. Our repeated requests to distribute campaign literature via e-mail were denied, and the DOL was less than helpful.

WHY WAS voter turnout so low?

Jay: Membership apathy, repeated disenfranchisement and a totally disillusioned membership, a large portion of which have completely lost faith in their union.

Shannon: Typically, less than 10 percent of the membership turns out for union leadership elections. In the case of the International elections, the majority of our membership had never participated in an election for top leadership slots. In the past, membership participation has been discouraged by the leadership. It's a tactic that keeps incumbents in office and ensures that no one challenges them--which is why Buffy has been able to maintain such a long term.

WOULD A higher turnout have favored the reform slate?

Jay: We believe it would have. Again, reaching/communicating with a larger percentage of our membership would have made a world of difference in the campaign.

Shannon: If we had more time to inform and educate the membership about the importance and implications of a change in leadership, I think we would have seen higher numbers and a heavier turn out in support of reform.

WHAT KIND of response did you get when campaigning? Where was your strongest support?

Jay: The response to our platform and vision for our union was extremely positive among our members everywhere we were able to visit. We received great support throughout all sectors of our union, the strongest areas being aerospace and airlines--two areas hit hard by poor negotiating skills at the Grand Lodge level, leading to substandard agreements.

Shannon: Our strongest support was the Puget Sound region, mostly Boeing employees affected negatively by the recent contract passage that stripped them of defined benefit pensions. Our second strongest supporters were from the airlines, Alaska, United and ExpressJet. Together we formed networks nationwide and were able to reach a large number of IAM members. Social media played an important role in our ability to connect with other districts and locals.

WHAT DO you think will happen to the Boeing workers' attempt to have a new vote on the concessionary contract that Buffenbarger forced on them?

Jay: The improper influence of outside forces working at the behest of, and under threat from, Boeing should not be allowed to stand, and we remain optimistic the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] will rule fairly.

Shannon: I think that will depend solely on the NLRB findings. Now that Buffenbarger has been reelected, we will not receive the support we hoped to gain from an International leadership that understood what happened to machinists was wrong.

WHAT PLANS do the supporters of the reform slate have to keep raising your issues in the union? Will you try to form a national caucus in the union?

Jay: We have a number of District Lodge elections coming up in June, following which we intend to refocus our efforts at membership outreach and building a national movement.

Shannon: I will continue to pursue IAM reform. I think it is our duty to continue the reform movement, and will continue to expand Rosie's Machinists 751 nationally. A strong network of support is our best chance of winning any future elections.

WHAT EFFECT do you think your campaign will have on the union in the future?

Jay: It has given birth to a reform movement within the IAM, something that has been sorely needed for decades. We intend to work toward positive change for our union to ensure democracy and fairness within it and to return the union to its members.

YOU BOTH attended the Labor Notes conference, where union reformers from many different unions met. How do you see your reform efforts in the IAM in connection to the efforts of activists in other unions?

Jay: Unfortunately, the last Labor Notes was my first. I wish I had started attending sooner. I intend to continue to participate in forums where other activists share stories of their struggles. Hopefully, we can all learn something from each other and use what we take from these experiences to improve our unions for all members.

Shannon: Labor Notes helped me to understand reforming the union is a long-term process. Having the ability to network with other reformers and learn what worked for them, and what didn't, helped to mold and refine my expectations for our reform movement. Some may look at the recent elections results and say that we failed. I look at our results and say we have just begun.

Further Reading

From the archives