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Latest News - January 2014

January 29, 2014
Former Union Official Mounts Historic Challenge, Returns To New Haven Roots
Source: The Courant
By: Dan Harr

If Hollywood were to cast for the role of a union dissident trying to overthrow an entrenched leader in a national election, the character wouldn't be much like Jay Cronk.

But the unassuming Cronk is doing just that, challenging the head of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. He's mounting the campaign from his job as a mechanic for Metro-North Commuter Railroad at the rail yard behind New Haven's Union Station. It's a job he held decades ago and resumed last month after years at the Machinists' headquarters in Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.

Cronk's $131,000-a-year job at the Grand Lodge, as the Machinists call their head office, ended abruptly in November when Cronk announced he would run against Thomas Buffenbarger, the union's president since 1997. Cronk was able to reclaim his old job in the shop, so he's rebuilding air brake valves by day, heading a challenge slate by night — without the sort of fist-pounding, arm-waving style that fits the stereotyped union battler.

is platform: Bring back democracy to a union that has lost touch with its members, with executives who drive Lincoln Navigators and Cadillac Escalades and stay in first-class accommodations, and a president who flies around in a Learjet and hired his son as a highly paid assistant.

In Cronk's view, the best evidence of the union's imperious culture is the very reason his campaign is such a long shot: There has not been an election for national officers since 1961, and even then it wasn't for president.

"The culture is a culture of power and privilege at the top," Cronk said in a conversation at Union Station, where he appears to have the support of colleagues in his own union local. "They spend like wild sailors."

Despite his raspy smoker's voice of a unionist, Cronk, 58, seems more of a professor type, with new work boots, dimming glasses, a crisp fleece pullover and a boyish head of well coiffed, strawberry blond hair, barely graying. He's living with his sister and her husband in East Haven, where he graduated from high school 40 years ago.

"My sister calls me the dark horse with the red mane," he quipped.

The bar, just to get on a national ballot, is high. Cronk and his slate of six other challenge candidates must first gain nominations at local lodges throughout the country on Saturday, then win the endorsement of at least 25 of those locals in balloting Feb. 8. That's 25 out of more than 800, but to win the endorsement they need a majority of voting members — not easy in a union where challengers have no direct communication with members, and the international headquarters has been known to make it clear that it expects no opposition.

This election, in fact, is a repeat of last year's voting, after which a different challenger — Karen Asuncion, now Cronk's running mate — protested to the U.S. Department of Labor when she failed to win 25 lodges. In a settlement, the union agreed to hold a new election under federal supervision after the department found the Machinists failed to give notice of the nominations.

Cronk is certainly a long shot, but unlike an outsider from the hinterlands, he has laid the groundwork with years as a mid-level official at the Grand Lodge, where he held various posts, including coordinating organizing efforts in the airline and railroad industries. Over the years, he said, he witnessed mounting evidence of what he calls abuses of power and a quelling of dissent.

"At first I thought it was just me, and as time goes on you realize that …a lot of people don't realize what's going on," Cronk said. "They frowned on mingling with people between departments and they still do."

One example, Cronk says, is the habit by the 11-member executive council — the president, the general secretary-treasurer and nine general vice presidents — of promoting people who have personal ties or have worked directly as staff assistants to council members. Andrew Buffenbarger, 29, is the prime case, making $136,500 in his position in 2012, according to federal filings.

"The executives themselves would always have the newest toys, cellphones and iPads, every new issue," Cronk said. "They get everything when it first comes out."

The incumbent leadership, through a spokesman who's the retired communications director for the international, paints Cronk as a failed union official who is hurting future efforts at organizing, and charges that the challenge slate is a Mickey Mouse operation with no real leadership experience.

"They've made such egregious and unbased charges that in every organizing campaign this union goes into for the next decade, Jay Cronk will be quoted by the people who want to put us out of business," said Rick Sloan, spokesman for the incumbent slate, headed by Buffenbarger. "And for what? Do they really think they're going to win? ... This is what's called sour grapes ….This is why they have zero support among most of the local lodges."

In fact, the biggest challenge to the challengers is not the issues or the personalities but getting the word out that they even exist. I spoke with some Machinist members in Connecticut who follow union business closely, and they didn't know about Cronk at all. Several union officials in Connecticut and throughout the country did not return my calls. For anyone who hopes to keep his power base, the challenge slate is a third rail.

Across the labor movement, unions have long used restrictive bylaws, newsletters and other means to prevent real opposition from arising. "Sad to say, the Machinists are hardly unusual," said Jonathan Cutler, an organized labor expert and sociology professor at Wesleyan University. "The promise of the Internet from day one was that it was going to change that, but it hasn't worked out that way."

Cronk's candidacy gained strength late last year when more than 30,000 Machinists at Boeing near Seattle, by a 2-to-1 ratio, rejected a contract that had been endorsed by leadership, including Buffenbarger. With Boeing threatening to move the work to another state, top union officials scheduled another vote on Jan. 3, when, opponents said, many were on vacation. That contract passed



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