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Machinists Union Reform Candidates Explain Why They're Running

Ashley Gross
Reform candidates Jay Cronk, left, and Jason Redrup, right.

Editor's Note: The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, a union of about 333,000 dues-paying members across the country, has not had a contested election for its top posts since 1961. People have tried to get through the nomination and endorsement process in the past to challenge the union's leadership, but they haven't succeeded, until now. Machinists are voting throughout the month of April, and the results will be known next month.

The IAM Reform ticket got a boost from Boeing workers in the Pacific Northwest, many of whom are still angry over a contract-extension vote that took place on Jan. 3. The members narrowly accepted an offer from the company that freezes their defined-benefit pension and shifts them to a defined-contribution retirement plan, in exchange for securing production of the 777x jet in the Puget Sound region. 

KPLU spoke with International President Tom Buffenbarger and published his responses. Here are excerpts of interviews with three IAM Reform candidates: Jay Cronk, Jason Redrup and Patrick Maloney. 

Jay Cronk 

Jay Cronk is a former staffer in the international headquarters of the IAM until he was fired last November after announcing his candidacy. He has since returned to his prior job as a railroad mechanic in Connecticut. Cronk is running for international president.

KPLU: How long have you been concerned about international leadership?

Cronk: “To be honest, for quite a few years, but I was uncertain how to do anything about it. I kind of believed maybe it was just my own impression and the general sense of the membership was that they were good with it. It wasn’t until I really came to terms with the fact that the membership is only good with it because they’re unaware of it and that something needed to be done about it.

"In 2013, there was a complaint filed with the Department of Labor regarding the first run of this nomination and election process, which as a result Buffenbarger copped a plea deal with the Department of Labor and entered into a voluntary compliance agreement, under which he agreed to run a new election. After much soul searching, I decided this was probably the unique opportunity to effectuate change from within, and that being putting my name in for nomination.”

KPLU: What made you decide to launch the IAM reform ticket?

Cronk: “It was apparent and definitely undeniable any longer that democracy was not only absent from the IAM, it was intentionally suppressed by those in power. When considering all of that, you recognize the fact that there had not been a nominee or a contested election in well over 50 years.”

KPLU: What reason did they give for firing you?

Cronk: “The stated reason was that I, in my capacity as a grand lodge representative, I had repeatedly in public forums taken positions on critical collective bargaining issues contrary to the goals of elected IAM officials. To date, I’m going through an appeal process, which is provided under the collective bargaining agreement, they have yet to provide even an iota of support for that allegation.”

KPLU: What are the main things you want to change?

Cronk: “When you’ve lived at headquarters, you realize what has developed is a culture of privilege for the very elite few at the top and no expense is spared for them for their convenience and those expenses are all borne by our membership through the rate of per capita tax and, as a result, dues the membership pays. The salaries are way out of whack.

"For example, our international president makes more than the secretary of the Department of Labor, more money than the chief justice of the Supreme Court, more money than the Senate Majority Leader and I just think that that’s wrong. That imposes a burden on the membership that I don’t think it’s fair for them to have to bear. The expenses, the lavish lifestyle that they live is unaffordable to the average member.” (Buffenbarger’s salary in 2013 was about $260,000.)

“Buffenbarger uses a private Learjet that was purchased at a cost in excess of $10 million. In 2012, it cost more than $2 million to operate. Those are burdens I don’t think we need and we could reduce that and reduce our per capita tax and dues rate.”

KPLU: What salary would you take if you were president?

Cronk: “Less than what we do now. That would be worked out, probably through a referendum vote.”

KPLU: Is there a ballpark amount of what you think is fair?

Cronk: “I haven’t had time to think about that. We’d have to have some comparison. We still want to attract the best and the brightest. What we need to do is find what would be reasonable and fair for the size and scope of our organization while keeping in mind the type of work we do is something that should bear sacrifice on the part of all. We ask for so much from the people  on the front line that those at the top should be willing to make the same sacrifices.”

KPLU: Is this kind of fight to make the union more democratic emblematic of what’s going on at unions broadly?

Cronk: “I think the lack of democracy is something that affects nearly all of the American labor movement, and [it's] unfortunate it’s come that way, but people in power learn how to hold on to power. Until the members rise up and say they’re not going to take it anymore, they’re going to continue to do it. At the IAM, I think we’ve reached a point where the membership has said enough is enough and it’s time that things change.

“Basically I think it comes down to where your interests lie. Do your interests lie within the organization itself and propagating the organization itself? Or do your interests lie with the membership? And I think that’s gotten twisted in the IAM and the interests are more in sustaining an organization rather than in representing the interests of the members.”

KPLU: How optimistic are you about your chances?

Cronk: “Extremely optimistic and we are grateful that we have social media nowadays and grateful that we have email. Without either we probably would have gotten nowhere. As word spreads about our movement and about the issues that underlie our movement, we gain more and more support throughout the membership and I think we’re at a point where the incumbents can no longer stop us.”

Jason Redrup

Jason Redrup is a business representative in District Lodge 751 and started his career at Boeing in 1996 as a 767 structures mechanic. He’s running for general vice president.

KPLU: Ever since you’ve been a machinist, how much attention have youpaid to the international leadership?

Redrup: “I’ve always paid attention, I’ve always been active in the union. I’ve been a labor activist since high school. I’ve generally been involved in the labor movement and understood the international and what they do. I learned a lot more this January.”

KPLU: Did you wonder why there weren’t contested elections?

Redrup: “It didn’t really occur to me. Nothing like being fat, dumb and happy, because up until this January, we’ve had good relations with our international. They’ve been on our side in contract negotiations. So I didn’t really pay a lot of attention to the elections for international office. They were nominations – they weren’t elections per se, because they didn’t have anyone running against them. It was almost like reading the minutes. We’d get somebody to read off the names, and they’d be nominated and that’s the last we’d hear of it.”

KPLU: Do you think there’s a problem with that?

Redrup: “I do now; I wasn’t aware of it then. When things are good in your life, in your world, sometimes you don’t question what’s going on. Up to that point, I didn’t really have a reason to question the whole election of the international but now what we went through here at Boeing and with our district and then how things happened and meeting Jay, I’ve learned a lot more, so it’s drawn me into new conclusions, including deciding to run.”

KPLU: What made you so angry with your international leadership about the Jan. 3 Boeing contract-extension vote?

Redrup: “That they set up the conditions to get the contract ratified. That it was a concerted effort on their part to maximize a yes vote denying thousands of our members a chance to vote on the contract, excluding more senior members who would be more likely to vote against the contract and  not give us an opportunity to go out and educate our members about what was going to affect them.

KPLU: Why did you decide to run on the reform ticket?

Redrup: “Because it was at the point where I had, I wanted to give the members here a voice to tell our story — that what happened to us is going to happen to other aerospace workers around the country. It will have an impact on our state workers, on teachers, because of, in my mind, the collusion between the business community, our politicians and our international to rally against our membership. Who else wouldn’t want that formula to get what they want?

"It’s going to have a long-term impact. People don’t see it today but in years going on, this pattern will repeat itself and I believe the next time Boeing launches its next airplane, they’ll do this again and I think it’s totally wrong. If I get elected as a general vice president, I would ensure the members have a voice and that they’re heard, I do believe they have an opportunity to vote but that they know what they’re voting on and the consequences of what they’re voting on.”

KPLU: How much attention is being paid now to this election within Boeing?

Redrup: “A lot, because there are still a lot of very upset members in our district because of what happened. If this didn’t happen, if we didn’t go through this whole contract extension, it would be like in the past. Nobody would care; most people wouldn’t even know who Thomas Buffenbarger is. Now thousands of people know who he is because of what happened. We went from being rather apathetic toward the international to being very concerned about who’s running the international membership, so I expect a good turnout.”

KPLU: How much do you think this kind of apathy is a result of declining membership of the IAM?

Redrup: “I would say it’s a bigger problem. I think it’s true for all trade unions — the lack of involvement of the rank and file in their union in the day-to-day activities of the union allow the leadership to be less accountable for their actions. Usually it expresses itself at contract time, because that’s when people are concerned about pocketbook issues, but between contracts, membership is apathetic about what happens between this. This is a real life lesson in what apathy can get you. Part of my goal is to change that, to have a union where the members are encouraged to be active participants in the direction of the union and help hold the leadership accountable for their actions.

Patrick Mahoney

Patrick Maloney is a Boeing machinist in Portland who inspects critical flight controls. He’s worked for the company for 12 years and is running for general vice president.

KPLU: Why did you jump on the ticket?

Maloney: “What happened is we had a vote before December over this contract extension. And it failed by 77 percent in the Portland area, but I was pretty upset by the process and our members were really upset by the process. And one of my friends who works at Boeing brought me the link to It was only Jay (Cronk) and Karen (Asuncion) on the ticket at that time.”

KPLU: And you thought it wasn’t real?

Maloney: “At first, I didn’t think it was real. As a matter of fact, I called the Department of Labor and said, 'What’s going on with this? Is this real?' And Geneva (Ferrando) called me back and said absolutely this is for real, this is sort of what’s happened, we found an issue with the way the election was run, and as part of a consent decree, they’re re-running the election.

"And I was outraged. I was like, `We can’t even run an election clean?’ Because as far as I’m concerned, the first vote wasn’t that clean for the contract. So we had two bogus elections on our hands and we got dumped into a third one in January. So I became so enraged by this that I decided I was going to run for general vice president.”

KPLU: What were you so outraged about with the Boeing contract?

Maloney: “Here’s where the problem with the Boeing contract is. For years, machinists have preached a defined benefit is the only way to go. If you look at issues in 2005 and 2008, that’s what we were striking about. I’ve been on a dozen or so organizing campaigns with the machinists union where we’ve been instructed by the leadership to talk about our defined benefit pension as something may attract new members and then to suddenly like a light switch go to we’re not into a defined benefit but a defined contribution plan was like a cold plunge. What made it worse was the amount of funds, the compensation lost was outrageous. It was a tremendous amount of money.”

“The corporation is having record profits. The industry is having record profits. They’re having record stock prices, and look at any of them — Airbus, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Rockwell Collins, all the way down the line — all of these guys are having boom business years, last year, the year prior, so their stock value’s up about 40 percent. Why do we have to take a concessionary agreement then? It didn’t make sense to me, and it still doesn’t.”

KPLU: So are you more angry at the international leadership or at the company?

Maloney: “Here’s the thing. It’s an outrage for the company to do it but you expect corporations to engage labor consultants to try to whack away at what employees have, that’s their mission in life: to smash the employees, squash him, suppress him, keep his wages down, keep his freedom down. That’s what they’re supposed to do. You don’t expect your union leadership to climb in bed with the union busters and the corporation and help facilitate this and that’s what outraged me with the union leadership.

“When I got into this campaign, I started looking at some things Jay Cronk was saying and used the LM2 report. So that’s a public disclosure document that’s available for anybody in the public to look at, to see compensation packages and see how money is being spent. The more you look at it, the more outrageous it becomes. So I’m hoping to bring to the IAMAW the fiscal eye for the union guy. it’s time to get this thing under control. The membership is receding. And you can understand why – their per capita tax is increasing and  their contracts are in a regressive pattern. It’s very hard to organize people and hold onto the people you have when that’s the pattern. Normal business practice would tell you that when your client base is shrinking, your revenues are shrinking, then you have to shrink what your expenditures are, but that hasn’t happened.”

KPLU: Do you feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle?

Maloney: “It’s been a huge challenge. It’s a giant mountain to move. You have to have a great deal of faith in what you’re doing and in your creator to get something like this accomplished, because there’s not been a contested election since I was 6 years old and only one person contested it. So to have a whole group of people get nominations from a significant portion of locals that they’ve never had any contact with, yeah it’s been an uphill battle from the very beginning.”

“At any rate, we were able to get endorsed. We did what nobody thought we could do — we got a national ballot for the first time since I was 6 years old. Man, that’s really an accomplishment and it’s an uphill battle, absolutely. Now we have to motivate these members to come out and do it again.”

KPLU: Are you facing a lot of apathy?

Maloney: Apathy is absolutely what’s happened to the machinists across this nation and union members across the nation. Union membership has declined precipitously since the late 60s, wages are stagnant and members have given up because they don’t feel connected to the leadership and the decision-making process. That’s what we’re trying to sell is hey, we’re going to connect you to this process, we’re not just going to have one election, we want an election every four years from now till kingdom come. So yes, apathy is an issue. People have this feeling that we can’t win, if they come out and vote, it won’t make a difference. That’s really the sales job is to convince people that their vote makes a difference.”

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.