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Union President's Final Act: Organize Airbus, Ramp Up Boeing 777X

Story has been updated with details on IAM United Airlines contract and with Boeing share price.

Chicago 
( TheStreet) -- Having survived an election challenge by a union dissident, the long-time president of the International Association of Machinists has about a year and a half left on the job. During that time, he hopes to make labor history.

Tom Buffenbarger, 63, has been IAM president since 1997. Given the mandatory retirement age of 65, he intends to retire Jan. 1, 2016. By then, he hopes, the IAM will have organized the planned Airbus plant in Mobile, Ala., which is scheduled to begin A320 production in 2015. Success, if it occurs, would redefine the image of the labor movement in the South.

Organizing Airbus is not the diligent Buffenbarger's only remaining goal. He will also work to assure that Boeing (BA - Get Report) can successfully ramp up production of the new 777X, scheduled to begin flying in 2020; that Boeing and Lockheed Martin (LMT) -- both IAM-represented -- win the contract to produce the next Air Force bomber; and for the 2014 election of IAM-backed candidates, particularly Mike Michaud, a member of the United Steelworkers who is in the highly-regarded IAM pension plan and is running for governor of Maine.

Looking further ahead, Buffenbarger and the union would be ardent backers of Hillary Clinton for president, should she run in 2016.

Following the United Auto Workers' failure to unionize Volkswagen's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., all of the old concerns about labor's irrelevance in the South have resurfaced. "We certainly watched the UAW's experience in Tennessee," Buffenbarger said, in his first interview since winning re-election. "None of this is new to us. We expect a fight from the politicians.

"But no matter what kind of fight management or the politicians may put up, what's incumbent upon us is to demonstrate to the workers the value of having a good strong union behind them," Buffenbarger said, adding that a union contract would put workers "on par with those who make Boeing and Bombardier aircraft," in terms of wages and benefits.

In particular, a contract would likely enable workers to participate in the IAM's defined benefit pension plan, increasingly a rarity in a 401(k)-happy corporate retirement environment.

Additionally, Buffenbarger said, Boeing has long benefited from IAM lobbying on defense contracts, a situation that could change if the principal competitor is represented by the same union.

As for the re-election campaign, Buffenbarger said he was surprised that some observers embraced the concept that Jay Cronk was a "reform" candidate. "It made for good press," he said. "But in fact, if you read his programs, he was talking about taking the union backwards. For instance, he wanted to do away with our education center, which we consider the crown jewel of the labor movement, training and equipping our members to become better union members."

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