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 Union History

From THE FIGHTING MACHINISTS, A CENTURY OF STRUGGLE
 by Robert G. Rodden

The Times . . . 

They were hard years. Times had never been easy for working men and women in the 19th Century. But the decades that followed the Civil War were especially brutal. These years of massive unemployment, widespread poverty and a level of human suffering hard to imagine today. During one typical winter of the 1870's, Harper's Weekly reported that 900 people starved to death in New York. Three thousand babies were abandoned on doorsteps and 11,000 children were homeless. In winter and summer alike, thousands huddled for sleep in hallways and doorways. It was a era of cruel contrasts. On one hand, teeming masses of working families were crammed into tenements under the most primitive conditions of safety and health. On the other a new aristocracy of money--with names like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Mellon, Morgan, Carnegie, Astor, and Belmont--lived in mansions that stood as monuments to wealth extracted from the sweat of human labor. In 1883, when the average working family earned less than $400 a year, Mrs. Vanderbilt gave a fancy ball on which she spent $250,000 in a single night.

This was a time of violence, of desperate workers rebelling in desperate ways against exploitation by ruthless employers. . . . . 

In 1877 a nationwide uprising of railroad workers was touched off by a 10% wage cut that dropped worker income to $5 a week for a fifteen-hour day. . . . .

In Pittsburgh, militia sent in to protect railroad property were chased in a roundhouse. They escaped by shooting their way through a crowd of men, women, and children. Twenty people were killed and many more seriously wounded. . . . . .According to a report by the Pennsylvania Riot Commission, when someone tried to prevent the burning of a grain elevator, protesting it was not railroad property, a machinist yelled, "It don't make a damn bit of difference. It's a monopoly and we're tired of it."

In Chicago workers and their families battled police and militia at the Halsted Street viaduct on two successive nights. Virtually all railroading and manufacturing in the city came to a halt. . . . .In Baltimore crowds took to the streets to prevent the movement of troops sent to protect the property of the B&O. In city after city officials trying to disperse crowds of workers were jeered and ridiculed. . . . . . 

The insurrection spread like a raging fire from city to city, from Baltimore to Altoona, Scranton, Buffalo, Toledo, Louisville, Chicago and St. Louis. The revolt rolled westward until it engulfed nearly every railroad in the nation. . . . .

This spontaneous worker rebellion--which newspapers referred to for many years as "The Great Upheaval"--badly frightened employers. Eventually federal troops restored order. . . . .But by the time the men went back to work a new spirit of labor solidarity had been forged on the railroads. From that time on the men who worked in the engine cabs and roundhouses began to force railroad managements to recognize their right to bargain collectively. . . . .

. . . And the Man

During these years of violence and upheaval a young machinist, Thomas W. Talbot, was struggling to feed and clothe his growing family. . . . When Talbot entered his apprenticeship, journeymen machinists earned as much as $3.50 and $4.00 a day, a princely, income for a working family. Upon completing his apprenticeship, the twenty-year-old Talbot moved from Florence to Sumpter [South Carolina] where he established his own machine shop. . . .The poverty of the region was aggravated by the general depression that hit the entire country in the 1870's. When Talbot's shop failed, in 1881, he took his family back to Florence and went to work in the machine shop of the Wilmington, Columbia, and Augusta Railroad.
As a result of hard times, jobless workers appeared at the gates each morning, desperate for work and ready to undercut wages. Talbot sought to protect working conditions in the shop by organizing his fellow machinists. He was able to get at least nine of his shop mates interested, but little seems to have come of this early stab at organizing. . . .Talbot himself was discharged for "union activities." He spent the next several years moving about, plying his trade in various cities and towns throughout Georgia and the Carolinas. . . .
By 1887 Talbot drifted into Atlanta where he went to work as a machinist for the Eastern Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad. Under the impact of hard times journeymen machinists wages had declined to about half as much as when he entered the trade some twenty years earlier. Undiscouraged by his earlier organizing failure in Florence, Talbot remained convinced that machinists needed an order of their own. Years later an old IAM member who worked with him recalled that Talbot had personal as well as philosophic reasons for wanting to establish an order of machinists. This old timer claimed Talbot once told him that he decided machinists needed an organization to upgrade the trade when he realized that after twenty years as a highly skilled journeyman he couldn't afford to send his sons to high school.

The Man (Continued)

Union History


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