International Machinists’ president: ‘Trust takes work’

The aviation industry is still hurting and struggling, Tom Buffenbarger, international president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said after a speech to the Wichita Aero Club on Thursday.

Neither presidential candidate has the perfect answer, he said. But he thinks that President Obama will create more jobs than Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

Both candidates are using general aviation as “props” in campaign ads, Buffenbarger said, but he wishes they would address the importance of jobs and economic benefits the industry brings to the U.S.

The union leader has gotten to know Wichita’s aviation industry well over the years.

During his speech at the Doubletree Hotel by Hilton at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport, Buffenbarger hailed Wichita as the Air Capital of the World and the skills and dedication of the employees who helped the city earn that title.

In 1997, he was elected the 13th international president in the Machinists’ 112-year history; he leads 730,000 active and retired members in the U.S. and Canada.

The union typically gets attention when it’s in labor talks with local employers.

Less attention is given to the help it gives a company to gain efficiencies and win new work, Buffenbarger said.

One of the biggest union successes occurred when Spirit AeroSystems became a stand-alone company in 2005 after Boeing sold the commercial aviation business to Onex Corp.

“Spirit was a gamble,” he said, and workers and the community felt a lot of uncertainty and fear about the future.

“That is not a good environment to launch a new company,” Buffenbarger said. “I knew we had to do something different if we were to save the jobs and the company and save the spirit of the company in Wichita.”

He credited Spirit CEO Jeff Turner for wanting to create an atmosphere of trust and good faith.

At the time, “I did not know Jeff Turner very well,” he said. “I knew we had a crisis in Wichita. We met and we talked and we talked and we talked.”

In the end, the two decided to trust each other.

“Nothing came easy,” Buffenbarger said. “Trust takes work.”

As a result, the union and the company entered a long-term agreement.

“Did we achieve perfection? Not by a long shot,” he said. “But we’re still here and we’re engaged.”

Some employers, such as Spirit, take a gamble and change. Others are stuck in the past, he said.

“We took a leap of faith,” Buffenbarger said. “It made a very big splash. Where it may lead, I do not know. But I want to see where it will lead.”