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Machinists Union President Buffenbarger On Boeing, Reformers’ Challenge

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
Tom Buffenbarger speaks to Boeing Co. workers Wednesday, July 16, 2008, at a strike sanction rally in Seattle.

Editor's Note: Tom Buffenbarger has held the top job of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers since 1997. He’s been in the public eye in the Pacific Northwest ever since the contentious Boeing contract-extension votes that took place last November and in January.

Machinists narrowly approved a plan on Jan. 3 that, among other concessions, froze their defined-benefit pension in exchange for a guarantee that the company would build its next major jet, the 777x, in the Puget Sound region. By accepting the offer, the workforce has agreed not to go on strike for the next decade.

But a lot of machinists are very unhappy with the fact that the offer even went to a vote after local leaders had said they couldn’t support it. Local leaders from District Lodge 751 had said they couldn’t recommend the offer because it wasn’t sufficiently different from the one workers turned down in November.

Now, a group of reformers is running to unseat Buffenbarger and other top leaders in the union in the first contested election since 1961. Buffenbarger agreed to a rare interview with KPLU, and the following are some of his answers to our questions. And click herefor comments from the reformers on why they're running.

KPLU: Why did you bring the contract extension up for a vote on Jan. 3?

“Because it’s our policy. 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. This whole thing, this is amazing to me because all we did is require our members to make a decision. The other side did not want the members to vote on this and it’s been 126-year policy of this union, the members make the decision. All I did was uphold our constitution.”

KPLU: What’s your response to criticism that the timing of the vote was chosen to steer the outcome toward approval?

“Nothing could be further from the truth. I personally pleaded with the previous director to hold the vote before the Christmas break. They refused. Then we were notified that if we had not made a decision, or the members had not made a decision prior to Jan. 4, the wing plant was going to be built elsewhere.

"This whole process started with that plant going to be built somewhere else other than Puget Sound. We tried to make sure it was built in Puget Sound. And I now have seen that the stories have finally made it to the press in Seattle that we weren’t bluffing about this. That St. Louis was going to be the spot where it went."

KPLU: So Boeing told you that they were going to make the decision on Jan. 4? What did Boeing tell you?

“That a decision was imminent. We knew they had dispatched a team to St. Louis because that was confirmed to us by St. Louis or Missouri economic development people.”

KPLU: You could not have held the election the following week?

“Oh, absolutely. It wouldn’t have meant anything because it would have … This is what I don’t understand is hard for folks out there to get. We could have held it three weeks later except it meant nothing. They would have announced the plant would have been built somewhere else on Jan. 4.

"We don’t control what Boeing’s going to do. This was not our decision when they were going to make their announcement. That’s their business. If we wanted to have a shot at having the new 777x plant built in Puget Sound, we needed to take action. We had a proposal to vote on, and all we did was ensure the members made the final decision. I am fine and have been with whatever decision they made.

"I thought this was over after the first vote. Boeing surprised us by coming back with a second offer. In any event, it’s the members of the union who make the final decision, not Tom Buffenbarger, not the international union, it’s not the 30 local leaders there, it’s the membership who has the right and as a matter of fact, the membership was pleading with us to have a vote. It was the leadership who said we can’t trust the members to make this decision.”

KPLU: Reformers say it was an essentially unchanged offer. How do you respond to that?

“A billion dollars is a change in an offer.”

KPLU: Where does that billion dollars come from?

“In the improvements made between the first offer and the second offer."

KPLU: The $5,000 extra bonus?

“That and resetting the zoom, which we were told was important. And the improvement in the dental benefits and the letter confirming the 737 line would stay in Renton because the agreement for the extended contract from two years ago for the 737, once the first 737 MAX was built, was that there were no longer any assurances that plane would be built in Renton. So we’ve guaranteed the work for Renton for the next 10 years, and there’s probably 20 or 25 years’ worth of orders for that site, and we guaranteed the 777x would be built in Puget Sound as well as the wing plant.”

KPLU: How do you respond when the people here, the reformers, say that you were too cozy with Boeing management and struck a concessionary contract agreement?

“They obviously have not read the agreement, and I’d like somebody to show me the concessions in it, because everybody will be making more money.”

KPLU: What about giving up the pension?

“They didn’t give up the pension.”

KPLU: It’s phasing out.

“Let’s tell the truth about that. This is the last site where Boeing still had a defined benefit pension plan. Union negotiators at other Boeing sites gave up their defined-benefit pension plan starting four years ago. In St. Louis, in Decatur, Alabama, Huntsville, Alabama, at the Cape in Florida, throughout the Boeing chain, and Long Beach, CA, with the UAW. The last site standing was Seattle. Four years ago, I told our folks and there’s a video I know they’ve been playing out there with a speech pleading with our St. Louis people, don’t give up our defined benefit pension plan. They overrode my pleas and voted to give it up.”

KPLU: Why change that if you were pleading then?

“I didn’t plead for them to accept this contract. No one has shown me anywhere where I said accept this contract. I sent a fact sheet detailing the contract to all of the members so they’d have some basis upon which to base their vote. It’s called facts and truth. It’s called information. I trust the members of this union that when given facts and truth will make a decision that works for them. And whatever decision they make, we’re prepared to back that up.”

KPLU: How do you respond to charges that your pay is exorbitant at a time when membership has been declining and that you have this Learjet at your disposal?

“First of all, the IAM has had a Learjet since 1978, long before I came. That plane is built by IAM members. It’s a small airplane designed as an office in the skies. That plane has been used for the benefit of District 751 and the Boeing members as well as a whole array of members across this country. And I can remember several times when that plane was used to fly Seattle union representatives to different sites to meet with the Boeing Company during various contract negotiations over all those years. We’ve used it to get strike checks to our members when they’ve had strikes because we couldn’t get it to them any other faster way.

"So the plane is not at my disposal. The plane is used by the union, so that’s another mischaracterization. And that plane was approved at every international union convention since 1980.”

KPLU: How about your pay (of $260,000)? Why is that justified at a time when membership has been declining?

“The last time the council members received a pay increase was in the year 2000. And our pay is adjusted only by the cost of inflation. And that’s what our dues are also based upon and every bit of that has been approved at every convention in all those years.”

KPLU: Why did you fire (IAM Reform candidate for International President) Jay Cronk?

“For non-performance and bad performance and the rest of it I have to defer on because it’s subject to a grievance procedure.”

KPLU: Do you have a response to the complaint filed with the Department of Labor last year about the nomination process that said it was suppressed?

“Just the contrary to being suppressed. Every local receives a letter in December instructing them that it’s Grand Lodge election nomination time, to please notify their members per our constitution and prepare yourselves to conduct those nominations at your meeting in January.

"There was a complaint filed that some lodges did not follow the proper procedure. The Department of Labor investigated and found that 26 out of 1,000 lodges did not follow the proper procedure. The IAM because we are transparent, open, said fine, we’ll redo nominations. And that’s where we’re at.”

KPLU:  So you’re saying it was not the fault of the international, it was the fault of the local lodges?

“That’s true.”

KPLU: What did they do wrong?

“They failed to send a notice to their members as required by our constitution. They’re supposed to send either by letter or posted on their web site or however their normal general communication system works, lodges are all different in this respect, they’re to notify them that it’s nomination time, they’re supposed to give them that information prior to their meeting in the month of January. Some lodges did not do that.”

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.