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History

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

EMPLOYER BETRAYAL. . .AND THE FIGHTING MACHINISTS

As May Day, 1901, neared it became increasingly apparent employers intended to cut wages as well as hours. This possibility had been skirted in the Murray Hill negotiations. O'Connell apparently assumed--or hoped--the reduction in hours would be granted with no reduction in pay, in effect, a 12% wage increase. As May 1 neared, O'Connell was forced to ask for a clarifying statement. NMTA heads responded that wages would have to be negotiated local by local, shop by shop. Employers had sandbagged O'Connell, ending a strike and grabbing a year's peace, in exchange for practically nothing. When it became clear, even to O'Connell, that he had been betrayed, a furious reaction swept through the union. O'Connell called for a nationwide strike to begin May 20, 1901.

According to a contemporary account in the Journal, "Local lodge halls were soon thronged with machinists eager to show their martial skills." In all, some 50,000 machinists, non-members as well as members, laid down their tools in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Philadelphia and other industrial cities. Many years lager an old-time member of Lodge 264 in Boston recalled that in 1901 when he was a young operator working ten hours a day in a factory, "Twenty machinists went on strike and gained for 300 operators the nine-hour day and the Saturday afternoon."

Faced with this uprising in hundreds of machine shops the National Metal Trades Association dropped all pretense of allegiance to the Nation Civic Federation's brand of labor-management cooperation. Top metalworking employers met in Chicago's Great Northern Hotel and adopted a haughty "Declaration of Principles" asserting the employers' sole and exclusive right to determine conditions of labor. Pledging that they would hire "handymen" and apprentices at wages determined by local conditions, employers flatly rejected any deal with the strikers. Nevertheless the Journal reported that by August seventy-three firms had conceded the nine-hour day with an increase in pay and only twenty-six were still holding out.

The Frazier-Chalmers plant of Allis-Chalmers was the last to settle. It held out for fifty-four weeks and was so heavily fortified it became known in the press as "Fort Chalmers." Allis-Chalmers' management prepared for a fight to the finish. Tents were pitched inside the fence to house scabs brought in from all over the country. Provisions and food practically prisoners. During a fire in one of the buildings, some made a break for the gates, but were driven back by the company's special guards. Through a 50 a week assessment on each member, District 8 raised $60,000 to help support the strikers. Relays of picket lines circled the plant day and night for more than a year.

Six months into the strike a picket named Ferdinand Trapp was shot and killed by one of the scabs. Police made an arrest, but a friendly judge reduced bail from $20,000 to $5,000, which the company immediately posted. The Journal carried a poignant account of Trapp's funeral:

Brother Trapp was buried on Sunday, November 24th. The funeral was a public one, and although the weather was very bad, with a chilling rain falling all day which chilled the marchers to the bone, yet it was one of the largest funerals ever seen in Chicago. Five thousand trade unionists, with two bands of music, escorted the remains to their last resting place, while all along the line of march the streets were thronged with sympathizing citizens. Brother Stuart Reid preached the funeral sermon at the house and also at the grave, and although a cold wind drove a wintry rain into the faces of the mourners and soaked their clothing, not one of them moved. And as Brother Reid, at the close of the oration, lifted his hands and implored the Almighty to bless the organization for which our brother had given his life and to cheer the loved ones left behind, the shadows of evening were falling, but the mourners still lingered at the grave. As the earth covered all that remained of our brother a few voices started to sing "Nearer, My God, to Thee," and the refrain was taken up by the hundreds at the graveside.
With the rest of the industry long since back to work, Allis-Chlamers finally sent in a new superintendent to negotiate a settlement. After a lengthy session with District 8 business representatives, A. E. Ireland and J. J. Keppler, the company agreed to a fifty-five-hour work week, and 11% wage increase and replacement of scabs with men furnished by the union. When the company tried to retain some of the scabs, IAM members took matters into their own hands, At the lunch break one day they chased the last eight scabs out of the plant and down the street, warning them not to return. In retaliation the company fired four IAM members. A half-hour later the plant lay empty. An agreement was eventually worked out with the shop committee. According to the Journal the nine-hour day strike in Chicago finally ended when "the men returned to work Monday morning, August 18, with a clear shop, the scabs gone and [those] discharged returned to work."


The IAM vs. The NMTA,
 King of The Strike Breakers

 

History


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