IAM challenger takes on establishment

EVERETT — Jay Cronk has suddenly found himself with a few thousand more friends around the metro Puget Sound area after the Machinists union international headquarters forced a vote on the latest contract offer from the Boeing Co.

Cronk, a railroad mechanic and former senior staffer at union headquarters in Upper Marlboro, Md., tops a reform ticket that’s taking on established leaders in a do-over of last year’s national union election.

His criticism of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers President Tom Buffenbarger’s assertive role in Boeing contract negotiations have been cheered by many Machinists working for the aerospace giant.

“It was improper and an abuse of power for the international president to demand that District 751 put what are basically the same terms to a vote,” Cronk said, referring to a second contract proposal that some 31,000 Machinists can vote on Friday.

Cronk was in town recently to campaign and found plenty of support during his visit.

“Buffenbarger’s an embarrassment to the labor movement,” said Roger Walker, who works in preflight delivery on Boeing’s 787 line in Everett.

The IAM agreed to hold the elections again after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor found problems with the nominating process that effectively discouraged competition.

The investigation “disclosed that the union failed to provide notice of nomination to the membership regarding the nomination of international officers, local lodges did not provide notice of their nomination meetings to all members, and members were denied a reasonable opportunity to nominate candidates when some members were working at the time of the nomination meeting and/or endorsement vote and no alternative method of nomination was provided,” according to a statement from the department.

“I didn’t even know we had elections this year,” said Walker, the 787 line worker.

A Labor Department spokesman declined to comment on the matter because the investigation has not been closed.

The IAM’s more than 800 local lodges must hold nominating meetings by Jan. 25. To qualify for the ballot for the union’s national executive council elections, candidates have to be nominated by 25 locals.

The union’s Constitution says elections in any contested races will be held in April.

Cronk, 58, joined the union in the 1970s as a railroad mechanic in Connecticut. He became a union staff member — first for his district lodge and then for the international headquarters — in the early 1990s, ultimately becoming the IAM’s international transportation coordinator.

He was fired in late November, a week after he announced his candidacy.

Cronk said it was retaliatory, a claim dismissed by Rick Sloan, a volunteer spokesman for Buffenbarger’s campaign.

“He was terminated for cause,” Sloan said. “On many recent occasions, he took positions in opposition to the position of the union’s elected leadership.”

There hasn’t been a contested election for a leadership position since 1961, according to Cronk.

He’s accused the current incumbents of abusing their power and being more interested in holding onto it than in being responsive to members’ needs.

Cronk tops a slate that’s calling itself IAM Reform, which only includes one other candidate: Karen Asuncion, a longtime United Airlines employee who is running for one of the union’s nine vice president positions. They plan to fill out the ticket by the time nominations are due, he said.

Their 10-point platform calls for a smaller and more transparent international leadership.

“Organized labor has to get back to its roots,” Cronk said.

He’s promised to sell the union’s private jet, let members know how their dues are being spent and lower dues for new members as a way to boost membership.

The IAM’s numbers have fallen by about 150,000, to about 575,000, in the past decade, according to the Labor Department.

Cronk blames Buffenbarger for the decline.

Sloan says it’s economics and that the leadership has had victories in recent years.

“We’ve had wins with ExpressJet and United,” he said.

Regardless of the leadership’s track record with organizing, many Machinists working at Boeing are upset that Buffenbarger stepped over the local leadership to force a vote on the company’s latest contract offer.

That heavy-handed tactic, Cronk said, has given “a significant boost” to his campaign.

Robley Evans, vice president of Local Lodge F and longtime Boeing worker, said he plans to nominate Cronk later this month.

“Buffenbarger is the biggest hypocrite in the IAM,” he said.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com.

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