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Boeing Battle Drives Election Challenge to Veteran Union President

Stocks in this article: BA UAL

Buffenbarger sees the Boeing contract vote far differently, as a landmark victory for the union. Assembling the 777X in Everett means job security for 32,000 IAM members. Boeing's February announcement that it will the 777X wings in Everett will provide work for thousands more.

"We did a long term contract with Boeing," Buffenbarger said, in an interview. "I know people are upset about that. But now people can make plans that require the expenditures of billions of dollars. Boeing is going to invest $20 billion and the State of Washington is going to invest $9 billion (in incentives). That's how far reaching the decision we made was.

"It boils down to this: The company had a proposal to vote on," he said. "A few people in Seattle said 'we can't trust the members to make this decision' and refused to hold a vote. But our union policies and procedures require that we vote on a contract, that the members have the right to make the final decision.

"I've always found that our members make the decisions that work for them," Buffenbarger said. "My job is to support that."

Boeing announced Thursday that it delivered 161 aircraft in the first quarter of 2014, up from 137 deliveries in the same period a year earlier. Deliveries in the first quarter of 2014 included 115 B737s and 24 B777s, compared with 102 B737s and 24 B777s in the first quarter of 2013. 

In mid-morning trading Thursday, Boeing shares were up 69 cents to $129. Boeing shares led the Dow Jones Industrial Average in 2013, gaining 81%. In 2014, however, shares are down 5.52%, the fifth-worst performer in the Dow.  

Looking ahead, Buffenbarger said he anticipates a successful organizing drive at Airbus, scheduled to begin building aircraft in Mobile in 2015. Success would be history-making not just for the IAM but also for the union movement, which has met fierce resistance in the south, culminating recently in the defeat of the United Auto Workers' effort to organize Volkswagen's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Buffenbarger said the Airbus outcome will be different. "We've already put in a lot of work," he said. "The IAM has a pretty good relationship with Airbus and we're pushing to win this." Buffenbarger was not specific about the timeline, but he expects the Mobile plant to be organized by his retirement date of Jan. 1, 2016.

Asked whether Buffenbarger had done anything good during his years in office, Cronk responded: "I can't say he hasn't done anything good, but his accomplishments are few."  

Cronk blamed high dues for a failed effort to unionize workers at Boeing's North Charleston, S.C. plant, a secondary site for 787 production. "If you could reduce dues and provide more value for the dollar, we could attract lower wage workers," he said. Similarly, he said, the Airbus unionization effort would benefit from a lower dues structure and lower costs.

In particular, Cronk objected to union ownership of a Lear Jet, used by various union officials, which in 2012 involved expenses of $2.3 million for pilots, a mechanic, fuel, hangar space and landing fees.

IAM dues are equivalent to twice the weighted hourly average of an IAM member, Buffenbarger said. That has been the case since 1976. The union president's salary is $260,000 annually, based on the level approved at a 2000 union convention and increased since then in line with cost-of-living increases.

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