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History

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

Vigilantes and a Case of Mistaken Identity

Labor organizing has always been a high risk occupation. Through the years IAM organizers have taken their share of bumps and lumps at the hands of employer goons. Moreover, in many places the law offered no recourse. Violence often began with officers sworn to preserve and protect the peace. An incident in Jackson, Michigan, in November, 1912, illustrates the point. An organizer named Fred Griffith was sent to Jackson to meet with a group of workers who were interested in the IAM. A member of Local Lodge 95 in Jackson, Herbert Crawford, helped Griffith set up meetings and make the right contacts. Late one Saturday night a uniformed police officer appeared at Crawford's door and threatened to break it down if not immediately admitted. Since Crawford had broken no laws he assumed he had nothing to fear. But when he opened the door the was hustled out to a car in which a group of vigilantes were waiting. He was tarred and feathered and so brutally beaten he had to be taken to a hospital in Chicago for special treatment. Griffith was marked for the same treatment, but the vigilantes got the wrong man. They went to the hotel room of an innocent and unfortunate traveling salesman named Griffin. Unable to convince them he wasn't who they wanted, he ended up like Crawford, tarred, feathered and in an emergency room. Griffith nonetheless, stayed on in Jackson and signed up more than 100 new members the following week.

Socialism in the IAM

The cruelties of unrestrained corporate capitalism, together with the callousness of the legislatures and the courts, strengthened Socialism in the IAM as in the working class as a whole. Between 1900 and 1912, the vote for the Socialist slate in presidential elections increased almost ten-fold, from 94,700 in 1900 to 897,000 in 1912.

As Socialist sentiment grew in the IAM, divisions spread between members who subscribed to the idealism of Eugene Debs and those who believed in the practical business unionism of Samuel Gompers. From time to time O'Connell sought to appease the Socialist faction by voicing sympathy for Socialist goals. In practice, however, he remained true to Gomper's brand of bread and butter unionism, i.e. working for achievable day-to-day goals without reference to social theories or ideological master plans.

Despite the Murray Hill betrayal O'Connell continued to seek stable relationships with management through the National Civic Federation. Having seen the IAM's treasury all but wiped out by strikes time after time, he preferred to settle labor disputes by mediation and arbitration. Employers, however, heeded the National Civic Federation's line only when stability and continuity suited their purpose. Most joined open shop drives whenever they had the upper hand.

The IAM and Scientific Management

Among the problems facing IAM members in the work place in those early years, the movement known as "scientific management" was one of the most irritating. This was an attempt to tighten employer control over the job and the work force. It included a wide range of supervisory techniques: piecework, incentive pay, time and motion study and efficiency ratings.

The father of scientific management, a late 19th Century industrial engineer named Frederick Taylor, viewed workers as little more than standardized attachments to machines. According to Taylor every factory "exists first and last and for all time for the purpose of paying dividends to its owners." He preached there is only "one best way" for a job to be done. This could be found through "scientific" analysis of the time and motion involved in each operation. After finding the "best way" employers could set a daily quota and a rate for every job. The fallacy of scientific management, as described in an early Journal, was that "it assigns a larger aggregate in profits to a few capitalists than it assigns aggregate wages to thousands of workmen." The Journal also warned, "He who would build a permanent structure of scientific industrialism would leave thousands out of work and would perpetuate child labor and poverty."

To self-respecting machinists scientific management was an insult, a put-down of their intelligence and training. Scientific management was in vogue in American industry for many years. In some places it still is. Then, as now, Machinists stubbornly resisted the dehumanization inherent in Taylor's theories. Although employers in the National Civic Federation tried to persuade O'Connell and other early IAM leaders that piecework and incentive systems were a fair exchange for the nine hour day, the members saw what experience has proven ever since: piecework inevitably degenerates into speedups and lower wages. In 1907, for example, the Journal reported that when piecework was started in the Susquehanna shops of the Erie Railroad "a set of class I rods that originally paid $35.00 now pays . . . $7.00." Moreover, this report said, "From the time the operation started until it was finished, the highest sped and coarsest feed were required and no margin allowed for accidents. When the price was once set, machinists had to accept it or get out."

Local Lodge 81 at the Rock Island Arsenal also fought time study and incentive pay for many years after being chartered in 1903. Members at Rock Island and other government lodges considered "efficiency ratings" a formula for tyranny. Pay scales were adjusted twice yearly according to supervisors' judgments of "attendance, skills, accuracy, deportment and speed." A worker caught looking out a window was fined an hour's pay each day for six months. Another, who accidentally broke a tool holder, was docked two day's pay and had his merit score reduced.

When federal officials announced that the Taylor system would be introduced into all U.S. Navy yards and arsenals in the summer of 1911 IAM lodges affiliated with Federal District 44 were up in arms.*

*For many years all lodges of federal workers were affiliated with a nation-wide district known as District 44. In 1966 it was disbanded when the Executive Council replaced it with the Government Employees Department at Grand Lodge.
Backed by rallies and resolutions, District 44 president William H. Johnston, led a delegation to meet with the Secretary of the Navy. They lodged a strong protest, citing reasons workers could not cooperate with Taylorism. Within three months the November, 1911 Journal reported that the Navy Secretary "had decided to stop all further attempts to introduce the Taylor system of management into Uncle Sam's Navy yards and arsenals."

Despite such temporary victories IAM members have faced scientific management in various forms in both private and public employment from that time to this.


A House Divided

 

History


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