EVERETT — For more than 50 years, the leaders of the Machinists union, one of the country’s largest labor groups, have passed power to handpicked successors, cutting members out of the process.
That could change today when members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers across the country meet to nominate candidates for the union’s top offices.
The elections are a do-over of the 2013 nominating process, which the U.S. Department of Labor said effectively eliminated challengers.
A reform slate of candidates, including a member of IAM District 751 in metro Puget Sound, is challenging the sitting leadership, which the reformers contend is more worried about holding onto power than representing members.
But, reformers say, changing the union’s leadership culture and refocusing its priorities on serving members won’t be easy. They can’t easily communicate directly with members, and the international leaders in the past have quickly stamped out opposition.
“This is all about information,” said Jay Cronk, a railroad mechanic and former senior staffer at union headquarters in Upper Marlboro, Md., who tops the reform slate. “Up to now, in most locals, the information has not been shared.”
The IAM’s Constitution gives the international president wide discretion to take over locals, even changing the locks and firing local staff if need be. Supporters of the incumbent, Tom Buffenbarger, say that authority is necessary and only used to stop incompetent or illegal activity. Opponents say it is used to quiet opposition and stomp out dissent.
Cronk and six other candidates, including three from the Northwest, have launched a grassroots campaign to spread their message.
The Northwest candidates are Jason Redrup, a business representative with District 751, which represents more than 32,000 Machinists working at Boeing; Patrick Maloney, who works for Boeing in Portland; and Sande Lien, an Alaska Airlines flight attendant based in Seattle.
The candidates are taking on incumbents who are led by international President Buffenbarger, who was first elected in 1997.
Rick Sloan, a spokesman for Buffenbarger’s campaign and the IAM’s retired director of communications, dismissed Cronk as a rabble-rouser with a “website and a Facebook page.”
Three of the eight sitting general vice presidents, including Mark Blondin from District 751, are named on both slates, because of a quirk in the union’s nominating rules, Cronk said.
Locals have to nominate candidates for all eight of the general vice president positions, or none. The reform slate only recruited five candidates, so it added three incumbents to avoid having nominations for its candidates disqualified.
There are a lot of ways to dismiss nominations. When the IAM held the election in 2013, the international disqualified nominations from 91 of the union’s more than 800 locals for reasons ranging from being postmarked too late to not being sent by registered or certified mail.
To get on the ballot for the union’s national executive council elections, candidates have to be nominated by 25 locals.
A District 751 official said that union members going to Saturday’s nominating meetings should bring letters that were mailed in late December by the international headquarters to notify members of the process.
If a local lodge nominates more than one candidate for an office Saturday, the lodge members will vote on who should get the nomination in a run-off election Feb. 8.
The union’s Constitution says elections in any contested races will be held in April.
Most union members have paid scant attention in past years to the top leaders.
Two nomination processes have been held since Bob Dennis started working for Boeing six years ago, but this is the first he’s heard about one, he said.
Dennis, a quality inspector on Boeing’s 787 line in Everett, said he hadn’t thought much about the candidates.
“I didn’t even know there’s a meeting” today, he said.
Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nomination meetings are being held at District 751 headquarters at 9135 15th Place S. in Seattle from 6 to 8 a.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. today.