My Conversation with IP Tom Buffenbarger: How Tom Became a Union Leader and How You Can Too

Dan Janssen, a 34-year-old Young Machinist and vice president of IAM Local 2323 in Toronto, Canada, recently sat down with IAM International President Tom Buffenbarger during a week of leadership classes at the William W. Winpisinger Center. Janssen, an Air Canada baggage handler who has worked his way into a leadership position at his own local, asked Buffenbarger about his past, his passion for the labor movement and how young people can get more involved in their union. This is his story:

It’s hard to believe that a year and four months has passed since my very first union trip – the IAM Young Workers and Emerging Leaders Conference in San Antonio, TX. It was here that I was first introduced to the Young Machinists program, and where I had the opportunity to connect with many other young leaders from across the United States and Canada. I also had the opportunity to take part in San Antonio’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day March. Ultimately, it was during that five-mile trek that a spark ignited within me, driving me to become a more engaged and active union rep.

Since then, a lot has happened. I’ve had the opportunity to make many meaningful connections – one especially that I’d like to share with you. About few weeks ago I found myself sitting at a quiet table with R. Thomas Buffenbarger, International President of my union, the IAM. It was in the cafeteria of the William W. Winpisinger Education and Technology Center, or W3 as it’s commonly known in the IAM, about an hour outside Washington, DC, where I had the pleasure of interviewing him about his experiences as a young worker.

Holding his hand over his heart, Tom spoke of working for the union: “Doing union work was almost like… it’s like doing religious work, you’re trying to make life better for people and you’re not really looking for a reward for doing it. It’s the satisfaction that you made someone else’s life a little bit better.”

I felt a deep kinship with Tom right from the start. I had started safety reporting only a few years back. The reason I enjoyed it so much was because you could create change to make the workplace better for your coworkers, whether they realized it or not.

Recalling his youth, Tom said he “had a love for the outdoors and anything related to it.” He loved camping, fishing, hunting and sports – especially baseball. As a youngster he was active in the Boy Scouts. He grew up on a farm, where his parents still live to this day. His father was a Machinist, so he knew the value of the union before he stepped foot in the door of his first union shop.

“I have been exposed to the Machinists Union and all that it stands for my entire life,” Tom said.

At 18, Tom took the necessary tests and applied for the apprenticeship program at General Electric Jet Engines in Evendale, OH. While he waited to be placed, he found a job at a Brown and Sharp machining factory. When he was called for the GE position in 1970, he began his apprenticeship and almost immediately put his name in for a shop steward position.

“Within the first 30 days I became the first steward of the apprenticeship class, and it was the first time apprentices had ever had a steward,” Tom said.

He spoke proudly about his days at the shop and the mentors that helped him while he was there.

“I will never forget the machinists and tool and die makers who took me under their wing when I did my apprenticeship,” Tom said. “They were true blue, died in the wool, rocked ribbed trade unionists, and besides teaching me the technical aspects of my craft, they taught me to be a real machinist.”

Tom called his time as an apprentice “some of the very best days of my life.”

Tom became active in his role as a steward, quickly becoming the chief steward of his shift, then vice president of Local 912 in Evandale, OH and soon after a District 34 delegate. He was also a delegate to the Ohio State Council of Machinists, where he met unionists from various industries and workplaces. He put his name forward and won a legislative position at one of the council meetings. It was here that he met a man named Phil Zannella, Sr., who would become a friend, mentor and like a second father to Tom. Phil offered advice that would stick with him through the years: “Keep your nose clean, listen, learn, and ask questions – that’s how you learn.”

I can still remember when Tom spoke at the San Antonio conference about seeking out mentors and becoming a mentor to others. He looked up to his mentors and his mentors looked out for him. Tom spoke about the early days of past International President William “Bill” Winspisinger, who would speak up at lodge meetings and challenge the board. One of Tom’s mentors, Phil Zannella, Sr., had also brought Winpisinger under his wing, helping him to later become the leader of the Machinists Union. Winpisinger also became a mentor to Tom.

“I felt very lucky that way,” Tom said of his relationship with his mentors and the opportunities they gave him.

Tom came to Washington, DC to work in the IAM’s organizing department in 1986. Soon after he was asked become assistant to International President Bill Winpisinger. When George Kourpias became the IP and Winpisinger retired, Tom became the general vice president for IAM Headquarters in 1991. In 1997, at the age of 46, Tom became the youngest international president in the history of our union.

His advice for young workers today: “Be persistent. Focus on what you want to do and your goals. Sometimes you’re going to get knocked down; just get back up. Don’t be afraid to make decisions; people look for leaders. Often it’s easier for people to say let somebody else do it. Be one of those people who will do it, because people are looking for that leader. Be open to new ideas and encourage others to step up with you, that’s how the union survives.”

As a Young Machinist, this resonates with me. I’m interested in moving forward, and not just for myself, but for the youth of our union, for our labor movement as a whole, and for all workers to defend against a capitalist system that benefits the few instead of the whole of society.

On the success of the Young Machinists program, Tom said: “I’m going to see a lot of young members who I may have had the occasion to meet somewhere in very responsible roles in this union.”

Having been through the program myself, I have met many of the young leaders who are stepping up. These are brothers and sisters who are ready to give whatever they can to ensure the survival of this great organization.

If you’re a young member who is interested in becoming active, now is the time. The IAM is holding a Women’s, Young Workers and Human Rights Conference from October 7-11, 2015 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Put a motion on the floor of your next local lodge meeting to send a couple of your members. If you’re already an active young member, I hope to see you there. I urge every local lodge to start a Youth Committee. You never know what might change or which young member could come out of your local on a pathway to change to world!

Tom said the song he used for inspiration when he was younger was John Lennon’s “Imagine.” In politics, he looked up to Bobby Kennedy, and was drawn to this famous quote of Kennedy’s: “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘why?’ I dream of things that never were and say, ‘why not?’” To this day you’ll find a portrait of each of them, along with one of his mentors, Bill Winpisinger, in Tom’s office.

I hope that you will join me in giving a tip of the hat to a man who has given almost three quarters of his life to this union. Tom is set to retire at the end of this year.Congratulations, Tom. I wish you the best, and have a happy and healthy retirement.

In an address to the Young Machinists in 2011, Tom said that the youth will ultimately decide the future of our union. As a Young Machinist, I see a future of breaking the million-member mark again and all of our members being proud to be machinists. A future where labor, corporations, and the government make decisions together for the betterment of all of mankind.

“Some call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” – John Lennon.

In solidarity,

Dan Janssen
Vice President, IAM Local 2323

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