By Alwyn Scott
SEATTLE (Reuters) - North American members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace workers on Saturday nominated challengers seeking to replace top union leaders, a move that could lead to a tougher negotiating stance toward major companies.
At stake is control of about 339,000 dues-paying members at companies ranging from aerospace and defense giants Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp to United Airlines , heavy equipment maker Caterpillar Inc , a factory owned by furnishing retailer Ikea AB , and even Maine lobstermen.
On Saturday, members at several of roughly 800 local lodges nominated candidates to challenge current IAM President R. Thomas Buffenbarger, General Secretary-Treasurer Robert Roach and eight general vice-presidents, members and union officials said.
Results of the nomination are expected next week after the lodges submit results to national leaders.
The nominations could spark a runoff Feb 8 to decide which nominees the lodges will endorse. If the challengers win support from at least 25 local lodges, an election would be held in April, the first contested IAM ballot in more than 50 years. If fewer than 25 lodges support the challengers, the incumbent leaders would automatically be elected.
Jay Cronk, a Metro-North Railway mechanic in New Haven, Connecticut, who is challenging Buffenbarger for IAM president, said he's opposed to what he and other members see as high spending by the current leaders. With membership declining, top leaders' salaries should not keep rising and they should not have a private jet for travel,
"We have developed a culture of privilege at the top," said Cronk, who also served as staff member of the national union organization for 14 years.
According to Department of Labor records, Buffenbarger was paid $304,000 in total compensation in 2012, the latest figure available, up from $293,000 in 2011. Roach's total compensation was $271,000 in 2012 and $258,000 in 2011.
Membership has declined to 577,000 active and retired members in 2012 from about 731,000 in 2000, according to the Department of Labor.
The incumbent leaders say the challengers lack experience and skills to run a union with a $1 billion strike fund, a $9 billion health and pension fund and annual spending of more than $160 million.
It was unclear whether the challengers could obtain the 25 lodge endorsements needed to trigger an election, said Richard Sloan, a spokesman for the IAM's current leaders.
"We have not had a contested election since 1961," Sloan said. "That means no candidate except the incumbents have ever exceeded the requirement of 25 locals nominating. Much of the reason for that is the candidates that run are fools and flakes and fops and didn't come up to the level of seriousness required of candidates."
Of the Learjet, Sloan noted IAM members make plane at Bombardier Inc and it costs less than commercial flights for the 250 days a year Buffenbarger travels.
While the issues in the contest initially revolved around spending and management of the union, a leadership change also could affect the direction the union will take on pensions and other key contract elements.
The IAM recently made headlines when it negotiated an eight-year extension to the IAM labor contract with Boeing that would ensure the company's newest jetliner, the 777X, would be built in Washington state, where IAM has about 31,000 members. In exchange, workers agreed to replace their pension with a defined-contribution retirement plan. They also accepted lower raises and higher health care costs.
The contract was widely rejected by Seattle-area members in November. In January, international leaders held a second vote on a revised contract, despite objections from local union leaders in the Seattle area, who said the new offer was too similar to the first one that had been rejected.
The contract was approved by 51 percent of members who voted. The decision roiled the membership, exposing deep divides on pensions versus job security, and has prompted members to file unfair labor practice charges against the union and Boeing.
Jason Redrup, an elected business representative of the local 751 in Seattle, who is running for one of the eight general vice president positions, said he would have tried to persuade members not to vote away their pensions.
"As a leader I would not advocate that members give up so much," he said. "If they decided to do it, that's their right."
The IAM nominations are being rerun after a complaint filed last year prompted the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate. It found that there was insufficient notice of the nominations, and ordered the union to hold them again.
(Reporting by Alwyn Scott)