What happens when a union starts acting like a corporation?

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?

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

Screen Shot 2013-12-09 at 2.36.55 AM

Sloan points out that salaries and perks are approved by the membership at each convention, but Cronk says that the gatherings are referred to even at headquarters as a "controlled democracy," since local unions can often only afford to send their district representatives, whose salaries are funded in part by the International.

Meanwhile, the union has also been investing more in lobbying, working alongside the defense industry to avert spending cuts, and mostly holding the line on elections spending:


IAM lobbying expenditures. (Opensecrets)

IAM campaign contributions (Opensecrets)

That's created something of a rift with the rank and file, which don't hear from the International all that much.

"The Grand Lodge, really as far as the local, is so far removed that we have no contact with them," says Darlene Williams, vice president of Chicago's Local 1487. "I think they should be more visible, more accessible."

"There's a pretty huge disparity between what I make and what some of these officers make at the Grand Lodge," says a local president who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution. "It's almost like they're corporate executives and we're paying their salaries."

The tensions came to a head last month over contract negotiations at Boeing, when a committee composed of delegates from the local and the International presented the union with a proposal that would have cut deeply into pensions and slowed salary growth for new hires. Boeing wanted the concessions in exchange for an assurance that it would make its new 777x model at its plants in Washington state, but the local membership voted it down by a 2 to 1 margin, and blasted the International for not getting something better. Buffenbarger defended the offer, saying it was the best Boeing could do in a newly competitive world.

“This was an opportunity to secure some work,” Buffenbarger told the Seattle Times. “It was unusual. It was a gamble.”

Airline analyst Richard Aboulafia says that's a fundamental misunderstanding of Boeing's situation, which suggests that even if the company was truly intransigent, Buffenbarger might not have wanted to sympathize quite so much. "The idea that this was the best Boeing could give, and that Boeing could easily move out of the state at a flip of a switch, that's complete nonsense," he said. "There's also a strong advantage to designing and building in the same place, which means you're not going to throw a Hail Mary here and say 'we're moving to South Carolina!' "


Boeing workers on their way to rejecting Boeing's contract offer. (Joshua Trujillo/AP)

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Even if the IAM Reform slate makes it to a vote, there's no guarantee they'll be any more successful in gaining back membership than the entrenched incumbents. Organizing airline and transportation workers is inherently more difficult than janitors and healthcare aides, for example, who are concentrated in cities; the IAMAW's membership is more spread out in different suburbs. The reform ticket's main proposal to grow membership is to overhaul the dues structure so it's cheaper for workers with lower salaries to join — especially considering the growing workforce of contractors who are paid less than the union members they replaced.

"If you're trying to organize a new group, it's usually a low-paid group, and how are you going to tell them they have to pay $70 a month, and they don't know what for?" Asuncion said in an interview. "It's the dues structure that's killing us."

That may help some, on the margins, and real organizing gains among contract work forces would send a message that airlines can't simply cut costs by outsourcing union jobs. But regardless of the IAM leadership's substantive performance, it may have shortened its lifespan by — as Cronk and Asuncion allege — going too far to maintain control. It's easier these days, Asuncion points out, to run a nationwide campaign on a shoestring budget through email and social media and make people aware of what's going on.

"It's so different," she says. "If this were 50 years ago, we'd have no chance in hell."

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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