by Robert G. Rodden

Burying the Color Bar

From the moment he became International President, O'Connell wanted to affiliate with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The head man of the AFL, Sam Gompers, was a thickset, strong-jawed former cigar maker whose philosophy of trade unionism O'Connell shared. In his youth Gompers was exposed to every idea for reforming society: socialism, anarchism, the single tax, cooperatives. The more he studied, the more he concentrated on trade union goals: higher wages, shorter hours, safer work places, better treatment--in short practical rather than ideological goals. He saw no shortcuts to Utopia. For this reason he strongly opposed efforts to involve the labor movement in politics. His political philosophy was summed up by the phrase--"Reward your friends, defeat your enemies". To Gompers unions had one major purpose--to bargain for better wages, hours and working conditions. Not only was this O'Connell's view of unionism but he and Gompers were close personal friends. All in all the IAM was far more palatable to the AFL's leadership than the openly socialist International Machinists Union which had been chartered a few years earlier. 

Acceptance of O'Connell's application for AFL affiliation would have been automatic were it not for the color bar which went back to the IAM's Southern beginnings. One of Talbot's primary objectives in working to establish this new union had been to restore and enhance the image of machinists as "aristocrats of labor." From the first, membership was strictly limited to an exclusive fraternity of white male machinists. This meant no production workers, no specialists, no women, and no blacks. By today's standards, such bigotry is inexcusable. But it is not excusing Talbot and the others to point out that these were not learned or worldly men. They were limited to the time and place where they were born and bred. . . .

Notwithstanding the early Southern influence it is clear that at least some Northern lodges ignored the ban on black membership from the start. . . .In 1928, O'Connell, invited to speak at the IAM's Grand Lodge Convention in Atlanta, recalled

The first real battle that took place in the organization was
. . .in Pittsburgh in 1891. At that convention there was a movement on the part of the delegates coming from the Northern states towards striking the work "black" [sic] out of the Constitution. Considerable friction was created.

. . .While we did not settle the matter at that convention [I decided] to take a trip through the Southern states to try to convince the Southern lodges of the necessity of developing a more liberal attitude.

O'Connell told of visiting the Eat Tennessee shops where the IAM had begun and seeing Machinists sitting on benches amiably chatting and eating lunch with their "colored helpers" while other whites and blacks engaged in friendly wrestling and horse play. O'Connell's attempt to persuade the Southern members to drop the color bar was only partially successful. A majority of the delegates to the 1895 Convention finally voted to take it out of the Constitution--thus satisfying the AFL--but they promptly buried it in the ritual, thus satisfying the prejudices of the Southern founders. . . .

In addition to paving the way for affiliation with the AFL by removing the color bar from the Constitution the delegates also required future constitutional changes to be approved by referendum of the membership as a whole. This insured grass-roots membership control throughout the IAM's important formative years. Finally the convention voted to move Grand Lodge headquarters from Richmond to Chicago, the city that had become the undisputed center of the nation's burgeoning railroad industry. In Chicago the Grand Lodge consisted of two room--one shared by the International President (IP), the other by the editor of the Journal and the General Secretary-Treasurer (GST). They were assisted by one lone woman who served as stenographer to the IP, typist to the editor, and bookkeeper to the GST.

The Old Century Ends


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of Siouxland Lodge 1426 IAMAW
Greg Enright