Boeing Battle Drives Election Challenge to Veteran Union President

Updated with Boeing share price, relative Dow performance and first-quarter deliveries.

Seattle ( TheStreet) -- Tom Buffenbarger has been president of the International Association of Machinists since 1997. During his tenure, the union has held its own despite discouraging societal trends for the union movement. Buffenbarger, who said he is on the road about 200 nights a year, has worked diligently. And now, he may be on the verge of a historic labor movement victory, if the IAM can succeed in organizing the Airbus plant in Mobile, Ala.

Nevertheless, at 63, engaged in his fourth and last presidential campaign given a mandatory retirement age of 65, Buffenbarger is facing his first ever election challenge. The bases for Jay Cronk's insurgent campaign are that IAM dues are too high, that the union is top-heavy and needlessly operates its own airplane, and that Buffenbarger mishandled a recent intra-union dispute at Boeing (BA), Cronk said in an interview.

-- Tom Buffenbarger, IAM president

Cronk, 59, has been an IAM member for 40 years, including 22 years as a union representative and 14 years working in union headquarters in Washington. He is now a railroad mechanic at Metro North New Haven maintenance base, after being fired as a top executive in the union's transportation organizing department. Not surprisingly, the two sides differ on the reason he was fired.

Cronk's presidential bid follows a controversial Boeing contract vote in January that provided an embarrassing moment in union history, when the union's inner conflicts were exposed to the world. Arguably, the affair also created an opportunity for Cronk, a defiant union official, to craft a campaign that could be viewed as a referendum on Buffenbarger's leadership.

Boeing didn't originally plan to build its 777X, a future plane with massive potential, in the Seattle area, but in the summer of 2013, "We asked Boeing for a shot at keeping it in Seattle," Buffenbarger said in a January interview.

A first round of negotiations led to an offer that workers rejected in a Nov. 13 vote by a 2-to-1 margin. A second round led to a slightly improved offer that was approved by 51% of voters. The 10-year-contract included moderate pay increases and job security, but eliminated a popular defined benefit pension plan. Leaders of Everett Local 751 opposed both the contract and the second vote.

-- Jay Cronk

"It's not so much that Buffenbarger stepped in, it's that he got involved without assistance from the (local reps) who are most knowledgeable," Cronk said. "He went in on his own and he agreed to terms that the local reps would not accept." After the loss, the local president resigned.

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