An Up-Close Look at R. Thomas Buffenbarger

Machinist Union members will vote soon on whether to keep Tom Buffenbarger as their International President. I worked with and for Buffenbarger for 15 years, and I want to share some personal experiences that argue strongly for giving him the boot:

An Up-Close Look at R. Thomas Buffenbarger

By Matt Bates, 12/10/2013

Former IAM Communications Representative and Headquarters Shop Steward

My first insight into the character of “R. Thomas Buffenbarger” came in 1989. I had been sent to Seattle, Washington by the IAM Communications Department to support a strike by 50,000 aerospace Machinists at the Boeing Company. The Boeing machinists had worked six years without a general wage increase and they were determined to get a raise. These were the “Reagan years” and there were very few strikes—and even fewer successful ones. Most unions were busy granting concessions. But our members were standing up and refusing to bend. They had launched the largest strike in IAM history.
About one a month into the strike, I flew east for a few days and met with Tom Buffenbarger, then administrative assistant to Headquarters Vice President George Kourpias. “How are things going out there?” Buffenbarger asked me. “Tom, they are going great,” I replied. “The members are standing…” But he interrupted me, literally screaming: “Things are NEVER going great when 50,000 Machinist members are on strike!” And he went on about the tremendous drain on the strike fund.
I knew there was often a disconnect between top union leaders and the grassroots members, but nothing had prepared me for this. I was intensely proud of the Boeing Machinists, and of the work we were doing to support their fight. I left Buffenbarger’s office thinking, “What an ___hole!” But I left badly shaken, too. It is unnerving when someone screams in your face. And it is unnerving to hear a leader of your union voice hostility towards such an important strike.
I had another memorable encounter with Buffenbarger in 1992, after I was elected shop steward for the IAM Headquarters staff. Every week, the International President (IP), the General Secretary-Treasurer, and their department heads would meet to discuss the work of the union. Our new IP, George Kourpias, had adopted a more favorable position towards worker participation in management (so-called High Performance Work Organizations). So, I suggested that headquarters staff members be included in the weekly meetings to involve us more in the life of the organization. When I first raised the idea with Buffenbarger, he looked me in the eye and said, “Matt, wouldn’t that be like letting the monkeys run the zoo?” At first, I thought he was joking but it quickly became clear he was not. The “monkeys running the zoo” phrase is used to parody the most anti-union, Neanderthal employers. No one really talks like that, at least not openly. Or so I had believed.
Things came to a head in 2002, when Buffenbarger (now International President) hired his boyhood friend, Rick Sloan, to direct the IAM Communications Department. Sloan had a habit of yelling and swearing at communication staff members, even in the halls where the whole building could hear. After one such incident, I drafted a mass grievance that every member of the department signed, demanding an end to the abusive behavior. Sloan and I had been butting heads so often that I asked a co-worker (who was on decent terms with Sloan) to actually present him with the grievance. I didn’t want the grievance to seem like part of a personal vendetta.
The following day, I attended a grievance meeting with Sloan and Headquarters VP Bob Thayer. I felt then (and still do) that Thayer was giving me a fair hearing. He seemed genuinely disturbed by Sloan’s behavior. Suddenly, Thayer’s office door flew open, and Buffenbarger burst in. He was screaming, turning red and purple, waving his arms, and talking so rapidly I could barely make out the words. I do recall that he called me disloyal and gutless. (He called me “gutless” for not personally filing the grievance with Sloan.) That very afternoon, I was written up by the IAM for insubordination.
I can’t think of a more blatant violation of worker rights—a more obvious retaliation for protected activity—than threatening to fire someone immediately after they file a grievance. Sloan and Buffenbarger justified their actions by reaching back several weeks to an incident that took place (ironically!) during another strike at Boeing. I was working in Seattle, and I had studiously ignored slogans and “talking points” emailed by Sloan from his office back east that were badly out of synch with the situation on the ground. My actions did, in fact, constitute insubordination. I freely admit that. But they certainly didn’t rise to the level of a termination offense. And the timing of the discipline—coming weeks later, on the very day I filed a grievance—was suspicious, to put it mildly. When I reviewed my personnel file in the GST’s office, I found not a single negative comment of any kind, from anyone, for my entire 14 years at Headquarters. But there I was, facing termination.*
I do not write this to settle old scores, or to clear the record. I moved on long ago.
I write this to document, from first-hand experience, how R. Thomas Buffenbarger operates “behind the scenes,” when the video cameras are off and the members aren’t around. Buffenbarger doesn’t act much like a unionist in private. He acts like a bully, and uses whatever underhanded tactics he thinks he can get away with.
Now that IAM members are openly questioning Buffenbarger’s fitness to lead, we are going to see a lot of that ugly behavior. Watch this campaign closely. Jay Cronk, Karen Asunscion, other candidates, and those who support them will be called every name in the book. They will be accused of every sort of heinous act, smeared, threatened, and punished.
But IAM members are accustomed to fighting arrogant, power-crazed bosses. We know how to do that. If we must fight the bullies inside our union, too, then so be it. And let the chips fall where they may.
* Matt Bates resigned from the IAM International in March 2003 to become Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO Union Label and Service Trades Department. He currently teaches communications at Trinity Washington University in the District of Columbia.

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