A fight for the IAM’s future

April 21, 2014

A long-brewing crisis in the International Association of Machinists (IAM) broke into the open late last year when workers at Boeing in Washington state voted down unprecedented contract concessions demanded by the enormously profitable aircraft manufacturer. But Boeing wouldn't take no for an answer. It threatened to move production of its new 777X airliner to a nonunion facility, and politicians pressured workers to agree to the concessions, which slash retirement pay and create a new tier of lower-paid workers.

Rather than accept the will of union members, IAM President Thomas Buffenbarger caved to this corporate blackmail and used high-pressure tactics to force the union's local lodges to hold a second vote, just after the Christmas holiday break, when many workers were still out of town. The second time around, the deal passed narrowly.

The controversy over the Boeing vote coincided with the first contested election for the top officers of the IAM in 50 years. The vote, being held at local lodge meetings throughout April, is being held under monitoring by the U.S. Department of Labor, which ruled that the IAM had violated labor law by preventing previous challengers from qualifying for the ballot.

With an active membership of 338,815--little more than a third of its former size--the 126-year-old IAM faces its greatest challenges in decades. Jay Cronk is the candidate for president against Buffenbarger, running on the Reform IAM slate. He spoke with Lee Sustar about the the struggle of union activists for a new direction in the IAM.

HOW DID you get involved in the IAM, and what drew you to activism?

I INITIATED into Local Lodge 1112 in New Haven, Conn., in January 1975. It was a very active union--it had a history of militancy. We had a very strong district lodge president and directing general chairman by the name of Joseph E. Burns Jr., and he instilled a sense of militancy in the membership. He was initially a part of my local lodge, so there was quite a lot of pride in having him as our directing general chairman. His presence or his inspiration got me active early in service as a shift steward, alternately a committeeman.

I held various offices within the lodge, including recording secretary, chairman of the grievance committee and president, before being elected as a general chairman--which is the equivalent of a business representative--with District 19, which represents IAM railroad workers across the country.

I did that for seven years and was re-elected twice, and then was recruited by the International and went to work for them on June 1, 1999, as assistant railroad coordinator. I was predominately assigned to assist in negotiations of railroad contracts and to sit as a member of the second division of the National Railroad Adjustment Board, which handles all the grievances and arbitrations that emanate from District 19.

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

When I went to work in 1974--I initiated into the IAM in 1975--I was employed by the Penn Central Railroad Company, which was one of the six major railroad carriers in the Northeast.

It was in bankruptcy at the time I went to work there. What emerged was ConRail--Consolidated Railways--and that was the start of the megamergers within the railroad industry. Now we have only four Class One carriers. Thirty years ago, there probably were 50.

Consolidation of the railroads led to a drastic decline in IAM membership and employment at those railroads. There's significantly less of a labor force, and naturally, there's much more work that needs to be produced from that labor force.

WHEN DID you begin to have doubts about the direction the union was headed in?

I COULDN'T pinpoint an exact date, but I went to work for the International in June of 1999, and at that time, I believe Thomas Buffenbarger had been appointed international president following George Kourpias' retirement. I believe he took office in July of 1997. So he was still rather new in that job himself when I came to work on the staff.

But it wasn't long before you could sense a difference. Working at headquarters, you could sense the unease among the secretarial and office workers whenever a general director or vice president or general secretary or treasurer--or, God forbid, the international president--was present. The joy all came out of the room. I mean, they're supposed to be employed by a labor union, and yet there was this sense of fear that would permeate the building when certain people were around.

The longer I stayed there, the longer I realized there was this culture of privilege that had developed at the top. Whatever they needed, whatever they wanted, the cost didn't matter, the expense didn't matter. They got what they wanted. They just had this sense of entitlement.

If you look back, it's a sense of entitlement that comes with the absolute lack of democracy within the IAM. I didn't realize that right away. But I often wondered why, while I didn't always care for what they were doing, nobody else seemed to mind, because they weren't challenging him or objecting. Then, over time you learn why--because people were afraid.

In Chicago in 2003, Local Lodge 701 was put under trusteeship, and two very good trade unionists, Herb Elam and Jon Baker, were put on trial on what I believe were trumped-up charges. They were found guilty by a "jury"--for lack of a better word--that was appointed by Buffenbarger, and they were basically railroaded.

THE IAM has repeatedly emphasized the need to organize, but continues to shrink. Why has it failed?

THEY NEVER really had a plan. They just would provide a goal. You could go way back to [IAM President] William Winpisinger. When he took office in 1977, he declared that organizing was our priority number one. We had key chains that said that.

That kind of prominence for organizing kind of struck a chord in our membership, because they said, "How about servicing us? You represent us already, how about taking care of our issues?" And they felt ignored. The goal to organize was always promoted, but there was never a plan to follow up to meet those goals. There wasn't a grassroots effort to make people understand on the shop floor.

In the late 1980s, there were a lot of problems. We lost 14,000 United airline mechanics to another union. The IAM likes to refer to it as a "raid," when in effect, it was neglecting--for years and years and years--the concerns and appeals of those mechanics to the point where they had no recourse. They sought to move somewhere else where they thought they might have a better chance at representation.

WHEN A new election in the IAM was ordered last year, you were fired once you announced your candidacy for president, right?

YES. THE decision from the Department of Labor was on August 15, 2013. At that time, I was in Maryland, still on staff. Buffenbarger had entered into a voluntary compliance agreement. He had basically copped a plea with the Department of Labor that he wouldn't have to admit guilt to the myriad charges that were raised against him. But in exchange, he would agree to run new elections, and the nomination period would begin January 2014.

There were two candidates that Buffenbarger had appointed to vacant positions, as the nominees for those positions. One is Diane Babineaux, who was his secretary and assistant for 30 years, and who has never been a member of the IAM. She has never attended a local lodge meeting, has never voted on a local lodge office or election, and has never voted on a contract. He put her up to be a general lodge president, which is a position of high esteem in the IAM.

I took that as an insult--not only to every member, but to every staff member who has labored hard and sacrificed much on behalf of this organization. There were quite a few others who felt likewise, and they urged me to run as a general vice president.

It was enticing, but I was on staff as a grand lodge representative. I had a comfortable living and a comfortable assignment. And if I were to run as general vice president, not much would change, because Buffenbarger would still be the international president.

After much soul-searching, I did decide I would enter the race--but I would do so in opposition to Buffenbarger. I announced my candidacy on November 18, and on November 25, I received a directive to report to headquarters by 9:30 in the morning on November 27, at which time and place, I was presented by a letter of termination written by Buffenbarger. It was not presented by him personally, but was signed by him. He was not there for the termination.

SO YOU went back to work at the Metro North commuter railroad?

CORRECT--AFTER a union leave of absence for 22 years. My seniority continued to accrue, fortunately, so when I returned, I found myself number one on the roster and was able to go to whatever position I cared to.

I decided to go to a position they call support shop, where I rebuild air brake valves. It's lighter work--I'm not as young as I once was. But I was met with great support and a hearty welcome from all my sisters and brothers employed at the railroad.

IT WAS about that time that Boeing began pushing for contract concessions--which were rejected by members until Buffenbarger pushed through a second vote.

I BELIEVE Buffenbarger more or less made this deal earlier in the year. He had been meeting with Boeing and, I believe, agreed to the framework of a deal that he did not inform any of the district leadership in Seattle and the Puget Sound area about.

It came out later that they'd been negotiating behind the membership's back without ever informing them, and also negotiating the rights and benefits of the membership without input from the membership or their elected union representatives in the Washington state area. Pensions were quite a significant issue as well.

Long term, I'm not sure what the implications might be. But it's certain that Buffenbarger has no credibility within our membership in the aerospace industry. The people who voted yes [on the contract] were not voting for Buffenbarger.

Part of the campaign for the second contract vote was to get the assistance of local legislators. They had the local member of Congress and all the elected city officials--who were all supported by our membership in order to get into office--come out and forcefully push and instill that fear: "What would happen if all these jobs go away?"

It's the same thing that happened with [the United Auto Workers' failed bid to organize] Volkswagen in Tennessee. That sense of fear was a very big motivator in that second vote, and it shouldn't have been, as it was unfair and undue influence from the community into the collective bargaining rights of the members.

WHAT ABOUT the issues for the rail division of the IAM?

IN 2008, upon the retirement of our last railroad coordinator, Robert Roach, Buffenbarger eliminated the railway department from the International. So they feel kind of disrespected and neglected.

If you're in the airlines, you have two airline coordinators you can call. If you're in the railroad, there's not only no one you could call--there's no one who has any experience in rail issues, period.

DOES REFORM IAM have a program that can speak to the union's diverse membership?

I'VE ALWAYS been a part of the membership. I've never looked at myself as being above. I didn't do anything but serve them. They paid my check. They were my boss, and I had a good relationship at every level--and they would speak freely to me about their opinion of things that were good and bad.

Their complaints all seemed to be the same--that our dues were too high, that our executive council was too big, that they were overpaid, their lives were too extravagant, their expenses were too high. If you spend in one year more in meals than the average member earns in a year, we've got a problem.

Just about all of the top officers have somewhere between $35,000 and $40,000 consistently, every year, in meal reimbursements. And the union's Learjet is a big issue--although they'll say, "Oh, it was approved by the convention." It never really was approved by the convention. The Learjet was purchased without any action from the convention, without any input from the membership--at a cost of over $10 million.

THEIR ARGUMENT is, "We built it, so it's fine for us to spend the money," right?

YEAH, BUT we also have 60,000 people employed in the airline industry. Shouldn't we patronize their employers and support their jobs, and at the same time save a hell of a lot of money? In 2012, the Learjet cost the membership $2.3 million in that year alone. That's for three pilots, a mechanic, jet fuel, hangar space, landing fees and maintenance.

WHAT KIND of impact has the Reform IAM campaign had on the union?

I THINK even if we don't win, that we have made significant progress in reforming our union. I think that we've given hope to a lot of people. We've demonstrated to them that it doesn't take a whole hell of a lot to challenge. People can step up in the future.

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