IAM head defends decision to force vote on 777X

The head of the Machinists union, Tom Buffenbarger, surprised my colleague and good-natured competitor Steve Wilhelm at the Puget Sound Business Journal on Wednesday when he called Wilhelm for an unexpected interview.

Buffenbarger said he wanted to set the record straight about the Jan. 3 vote on the Boeing Co.’s contract proposal, which cut benefits in exchange for placing 777X work in Washington.

If the contract hadn’t been approved, he said Washington would not have made Boeing’s short list for 777X wing production and assembly sites, which he expected to be finalized Jan. 6.

Buffenbarger feared a no vote would have prompted Boeing to shift as much work as possible out of the state, Wilhem writes.

The president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) told the PSBJ that the airplane maker could have moved production of its U.S. Air Force aerial tanker — a derivative of its 767 jetliner — from Everett to Long Beach, Calif., where C-17 assembly is slated to end in 2016.

If true, that could have made Everett a lonely place in a few years after work on the 777 classic winds down and with the 747 line’s future in question.

Buffenbarger’s comments are surprising. In the run up to the vote, which Buffenbarger forced over local labor leaders’ objections, representatives for IAM’s headquarters in Upper Marlboro, Md., never mentioned the possibility of the Air Force tanker moving, and didn’t indicate that Washington wouldn’t make Boeing’s short list.

Buffenbarger himself failed to mention either in a letter from him to Machinists working at Boeing before the vote.

The Chicago-based company declined to comment on Buffenbarger’s assertion about its short list.

Aerospace analysts repeatedly said Everett is the only location that made economic sense for 777X final assembly, but cautioned that Boeing senior leaders so dislike unions that it was possible that they would pick somewhere out of state.

As for moving the KC-46A aerial tanker program, it might be feasible, but it doesn’t make any sense, said Scott Hamilton, an aerospace analyst and managing director of Issaquah-based Leeham Co.

“If the idea is to get away from the union, why would you move to a union state?” Hamilton said. “There’s no logic to what Buffenbarger said there,” Hamilton said.

But, as Wilhelm notes, Buffenbarger is facing his first actual election since ascending to the IAM presidency in 1997. A slate of candidates called IAM Reform has managed to force the union’s first general election since 1961.

Their effort was aided by the U.S. Department of Labor, which investigated the IAM’s 2013 election and determined that union leaders had stifled competition. Rather than fight the Labor Department, the IAM agreed to run the election again.

In addition, members of District Lodge 751, which represents roughly 32,000 Machinists, most of whom work at Boeing, have filed several complaints with the National Labor Relations Board against the IAM headquarters for its role in the recent Boeing contract talks and vote.

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

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