by Robert G. Rodden


When the new century began, organized labor had been agitating, parading and demonstrating for the eight-hour day for almost forty years. In 1863, Ira Steward, a Boston machinist known as the father of the eight-hour day, inspired the National Union of Machinists and Blacksmiths to pass a resolution saying "From East to West, from North to South, the most important change to us as working men. . .is a permanent reduction to eight of the hours exacted for each day's work."

In labor temples and union leaflets from coast to coast the slogan endlessly repeated, was:

Whether you work by the hour or day
The shorter the hours, the greater the pay
Employers and the press ridiculed the notion, claiming fewer hours on the job would encourage laziness and sloth among the working classes. Many preachers assured their comfortable, well-fed congregations that the devil would surely make work for idle hands.

The overwhelming majority of Americans still worked ten or twelve hours a day, six, and sometimes seven, days a week. Some employers still posted notices warning their workers, "If you don't come in Sunday, don't come in Monday." When the ILGWU began organizing in New York City in 1900, for example, the normal workweek for the garment industry was seventy hours. Nevertheless, by the turn of the century a few of the highly skilled trades, including most machinists, had already won the ten hour day. Local Lodge 52 in Pittsburgh negotiated the IAM's first nine-hour day contract in 1898. The following year many Canadian members won a nine-hour day after a four-week strike against the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

The Nine-Hour Day and the Murray Hill Agreement

Hearing of these break-throughs, machinists everywhere itched to shorten the prevailing ten-hour day in metal working. In January, 1900, District 8 presented 150 machine shops in Chicago with a contract demand for a nine-hour workday. After several weeks of hard bargaining it became clear that employers would not agree.

Chicago machinists hit the bricks. Later the Journal reported "Another blow was then struck in Cleveland, when 2,000 machinists went on strike. The machinists in Columbus then laid down their tools, as did those of Patterson, New Jersey." As walkouts spread to Detroit, Philadelphia and other industrialized centers, employers began looking for a way to get their skilled craftsmen back to work. In Chicago, the newly organized National Metal Trades Association (NMTA) call for industry-wide negotiations between top management and top union officers.

O'Connell leaped at management's offer to sit down and talk. His response was undoubtedly influenced by his association with and faith in an organization known as the National Civic Federation (NCF). The NCF was a prestigious and publicly acclaimed organization of some of the most prominent and powerful business, industry, labor and professional leaders in America. It preached labor arbitration and conciliation and was based on the supposition that union officers were more stable and trustworthy than their members. A surprising number of America's leading trade unionists, including AFL President Sam Gompers, as well as top officers of the Iron Molders, the Boilermakers, the Miners and the Carpenters, grasped for respectability and employer recognition by supporting NCF goals.

O'Connell met with NMTA representatives at New York's Murray Hill Hotel in May 1900. After more than a week of tense negotiations the employers finally agreed to what seemed to be a great victory for the union. The agreement provided there would be no discrimination against union labor, defined "machinist" in the all-round terms of the IAM Constitution, stipulated extra pay for overtime, adopted an apprenticeship ratio and, most importantly, promised to put a fifty-four-hour week into effect May 1, 1901, one year from the signing of the contract.

When word of this settlement swept work places, Machinists, together with workers everywhere, were jubilant. Journal editor Douglas Wilson exulted in the June, 1900, issue, "Less than twelve months from now we shall be working a nine-hour day. It seems scarcely credible when we consider how far off it seemed twelve months ago. To the thoughtless this may not appear much, but it is really revolutionary." Union publications began to count down, month-by-month, the time left until the nine-hour day became reality. The NMTA's recognition of the IAM encouraged thousands of unorganized machinists to sign up. Although management had stubbornly rejected a union shop clause, machinists began enforcing union membership by refusing to work with non-union help. During this one year alone membership increased 25%--from less than 25,000 to more than 32,000. O'Connell had agreed not to place limits on production but union members themselves refused to do piecework or operate more than one machine.

Today, a hundred years later, piecework and operating more than one machine are still prohibited by the IAM Constitution. Art. K, Sec. V.  


Employer Betrayal and The Fighting Machinists



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of Siouxland Lodge 1426 IAMAW
Greg Enright