April 7, 2015
By Marc Bussanich
New York, NY—The president of the 600,000-member machinists union says it will just as previous trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement did 20 years ago.
Thomas Buffenbarger was first elected as president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in July 1997 and recently won re-election despite a strong challenge by numerous candidates. In a recent interview, he told LaborPress that just like the United Automobile Workers and other unions in the manufacturing sector, the I.A.M.A. has been negatively affected by offshoring.
“We used to represent many of the home appliance manufactures such as Maytag, Whirlpool and Genera Electric. Maytag is probably the most famous example of offshoring—they uprooted their most profitable and most efficient plant in Galesburg, Illinois and moved it to Reynosa, Mexico and in the process closed down a great American manufacturing center,” said Buffenbarger. “But 10 years after the Maytag plant closed in Illinois, the company is now closing down the Mexican plant and building a new one in Vietnam because that’s the new place where wages are lowest. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is designed to make it easier for U.S. companies to manufacture their goods in another country for the cheapest wages.”
Under Buffenbarger’s leadership, the I.A.M.A. is leading the charge in oppositing the TPP.
“We remember the lessons of history. NAFTA was a bad deal and TPP will be worst.”
He noted that he serves as chairman of the labor advisory committee to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, but has yet to receive a copy of the proposed trade agreement being championed by President Barack Obama.
“We don’t know what it’s in it. Why are they hiding it from the American public? Because they know it’s a bad agreement,” said Buffenbarger.
The I.A.M.A. was founded May 5, 1888 in Atlanta, Georgia when 19 employees working for the Southern Railway decided they needed a union to collectively negotiate with the company for better contracts. Today, the union is the biggest railroad union in the United States, but it also represents members in various industry sectors including airline, aerospace and defense.
Buffenbarger said it was necessary for the union to diversify across several industry sectors in order to expand trade unionism.
“We’re a precision craft union in the sense that we manufacture and produce things that people use in their everyday lives. Every time you make an international phone call with your cell phone it was probably an I.A.M.A. member that built that satellite in the stratosphere to make that call possible. It’s been necessary to [diversify]. We could have remained a small, craft union, but our nature is to bring the benefits of trade unionism to as many as possible.”
The I.A.M.A. experienced rapid growth in the 1950s when the U.S. airline industry started expanding; it represents thousands of members in Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon working for the Boeing Company, the main U.S. airplane manufacturer. But that company decided to open a new production facility outside Charleston, South Carolina several years ago to avoid unionization.
But on April 22, almost 3,000 workers at the Charleston plant will have the opportunity to vote to join the I.A.M.A. And Boeing’s main rival, European-based Airbus, is set to open a final assembly line in Mobile, Alabama whereby the union will be launching an organizing drive.
We asked Mr. Buffenbarger which of the two organizing drives in the South is more important to the union’s overall organizing strategy.
“They’re both important because they’re competitors. Just as the UAW organized Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, we want to organize both [companies] because we don’t want them competing on the backs of low-wage workers. We want the workers to be recognized and paid accordingly. Organizing all workers is important to keeping the industry truly competitive,” Buffenbarger said.
With his re-election as president, Buffenbarger said the union’s number one priority is to continue to grow through organizing and bargaining effectively and strategically.