by Robert G. Rodden

The Old Century Ends

As the 19th Century drew to a close O'Connell, as "chief organizer," set out to regain the momentum lost during the Pullman strike. Old timers later recalled that the I.P. often had to travel in a caboose and depend on local lodges to provide a place to stay. Following Talbot's earlier example, O'Connell mailed great numbers of organizing circulars, leaflets and free copies of the Machinists Monthly Journal to railroad roundhouses and machine shops throughout the nation. Slowly he began to build a crew of organizers in the field.

One of the most remarkable of these was a twenty year old named Pete Conlon. Born in Brooklyn in 1869 Conlon grew up and went to school in Springfield, Illinois. After completing his formal education--usually no more than eight grades in those days--Conlon, always foot-loose, drifted down to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where he stayed around long enough to apprentice and get his journeymen papers with the St. Louis and Western Railroad. As was customary for beginning journeymen seeking wider experience he moved on to Kansas City where he went to work for the Union Pacific. At one point in his youth he was a member of the Knights of Labor--whether in Pine Bluff or Kansas City is unclear. In February 1890, soon after his arrival in Kansas City, he helped to organize and became a charter member of Local Lodge 27.

In Talbot's new order of Machinists, Conlon found his purpose in life. Starting out from Kansas City he rode the rails for the next five years, generally stopping off at rail centers just long enough to get a job and organize the machinists in the repair shops. It was later said of Conlon that by the time he was twenty-five he had traveled and organized in every state west of the Mississippi. It was also said that if a town had no IAM lodge when he arrived, it had one when he left. In a series of memoirs written the Journal in the 1920's, Conlon provided vivid descriptions of the life of the old-time boomers who were the IAM's first unpaid organizers. He told of sleeping in boxcars, of sometimes hocking his prized railroad watch for money to live on, of being endlessly arrested for violating local anti-union or anti-picketing ordinances.

In 1894 Conlon settled down in Omaha long enough to organize the IAM's first district lodge out of local lodges serving members on the Union Pacific. The following year he was a delegate to the Grand Lodge Convention in Cincinnati and was elected to the General Executive Board. When the 1901 Grand Lodge Convention in Toronto established five vice presidencies he was elected First Vice President. In one way or another Conlon was in the thick of every major battle and campaign fought by the Machinists for almost four decades. By attracting and keeping the loyalty of men like Conlon the IAM was able to recoup much of the ground lost in the ARU debacle. By the end of the century it was solidly and permanently established. In just twelve years Tom Talbot's little band of Atlanta machinists became the fifth largest union on the North American continent, counting more than 22,000 members throughout the United States and Canada.

The outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 powered a sudden demand for skilled workers. Machinist wages surged to 35 an hour and most could demand time-and-a-half for overtime. Despite war-fueled prosperity the great majority of industrial workers remained poorly paid and exploited. Academic historians usually refer to this period as the "Gay Nineties" but in working class annals, as recorded in the Journal some years later,

The "heart-breaking nineties" were packed with grim facts that tried men's souls--hard times, business failures, mortgaged farms and labor disturbances. Corn selling at ten or fifteen cents a bushel was cheaper to burn than coal. The tenant farmer in the South was starving on five-cent cotton. In the industrial centers the laborer frequently faced a reduced wage scale after long periods of idleness.
This pervading poverty and misery strengthened socialist sentiments in the IAM. A number of the national officers, including GST Preston and Journal editor Douglas Wilson, were avowed Socialists in the British labor tradition. Communications in the Journal during this period show that support for moderate, reformist socialism was spreading in IAM lodges.

O'Connell, however, continued to reject any philosophy other than strict craft unionism. When delegates to the Buffalo Grand Lodge Convention in 1899 resolved support for "Public Ownership of Public Utilities," he argued that trade unions should not be deflected by political issues from their trade union purposes. Although O'Connell warned that issues such as this would mean "ripping up the back of our association," he was overruled by a large majority.

The New Century 1900~1920


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Greg Enright