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Latest News - December 2013

December 9, 2013
What happens when a union starts acting like a corporation?
Source: Washington Post
By: Lydia Depillis

The labor movement has a lot of challenges forced upon it by economic conditions. Rigid, entrenched leadership is one that it's brought upon itself.

That's what appears to be the case with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which will have to re-run its elections after the Department of Labor found it guilty of failing to adequately notify members that nominations for leadership positions were underway earlier this year. It's very rare for the Labor Department to have to intervene in elections; the IAM is the only re-run for top officers in 2012. This wasn't an aberration for the IAM, though: The last time someone got enough nominations from local chapters to land a spot on the general election ballot was 1961.

And this time, the Grand Lodge — also known as the "International," since it represents workers in Canada as well — has finally drawn some serious challengers.

Jay Cronk, who had been a staff member at the International headquarters for 21 years — he was fired a week after announcing his run — is heading up a slate calling itself IAM Reform, with a platform of a shrunken and more responsive Grand Lodge. Karen Asuncion, a 30-year United Airlines employee who works as a ramp service worker at Reagan National Airport and who filed the election complaint that prompted the investigation, is running for one of the union's nine vice president spots; they say they'll have a full slate by the time nominations are due at the end of January.

"We proudly promote ourselves as the most democratic union in America," Cronk says in his campaign video. "When in reality, it is a select few who have chosen to decide who leads the IAM, without benefit of membership input."

There's a lot at stake. The Machinists' U.S. membership has declined precipitously in recent years, and the race carries overtones of the central challenge facing the labor movement: How can you bring more people under the umbrella, while maintaining legacy benefits for those that remain?

U.S. membership numbers from the Department of Labor (i.e., not including Canadian members).

Thomas Buffenbarger, who's worked at IAM headquarters since 1986 and been the international president since 1997, came into office at a much better time for the union. In June 1998, it was coming off its 20th month of membership growth, driven by a burgeoning airline industry and recruitment of women and more educated workers. Buffenbarger, the youngest president in the then-110-year-old union's history, put money into field staff and building alliances with labor groups overseas.

But then came 9/11 and the airline retrenchment that followed, cutbacks in defense spending, and the contracting out of airline services like baggage handlers and ground controllers (the "fissuring" thing). IAM spokesman Rick Sloan ticks off some of the triumphs the union has had in spite of those headwinds: Signing up workers on military bases in the mid-2000s, organizing the lobstermen in Maine, and adding 4,600 US Airways employees last July, for example. They also merged with the 48,000-strong Transportation Communications Union in 2004, which will show up in next year's membership numbers. But it hasn't been enough.

"When you lose those kinds of numbers, it's really hard to come and find organizing victories," Sloan said in an interview. "There have been lots along the way, but not at the kinds of numbers that we had before those four hits."

Sloan has nothing but disdain for the challengers.

"Anybody can say any damn fool thing, and anybody can purchase a Godaddy.com Web site for about 9 bucks a month and put anything they want onto it, but that doesn't translate into effective communications with the membership," he says. "If your strategy is to trash your own organization, not many are going to look to you for leadership."

The IAM has given them lots of fodder, though. Despite declining revenue, the Grand Lodge hasn't cut back on expenses, like a Learjet that costs $1 million a year to maintain. Instead, it's added executive positions and paid them more, topping out at $304,114 for Buffenbarger, according to filings with the Department of Labor:

 

 


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