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History

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

A House Divided

From the start O'Connell tried to persuade employers to accept his kind of trade unionism. Favoring mediation over strikes, he offered business unionism instead of Socialism. He cultivated contacts and friendships with business leaders through the National Civic Federation. The futility of such an approach became painfully apparent when the National Metal Trades Association reneged on the Murray Hill agreement. The members' faith in O'Connell was further shaken by the severe business depression known as the Great Panic of 1907. At one point more than a third of the IAM's membership was either jobless or on short time. With the work force so vulnerable, employers quickly dropped all pretense of labor-management cooperation. Metalworking firms that had given lip service to the NCF now joined the NMTA in a spasm of union-busting. In Pittsburgh, U.S. Steel, Mesta Machine and the Pressed Steel Car Company rushed to support the Pittsburgh Manufacturers Association's open shop campaign. The Machinists fought back with at least twenty-five strikes, many lasting throughout the long, cold winter. Scores of members were arrested and at least three of the IAM's district officers went to jail. Many of the gains made in earlier years were lost. Pittsburgh was not unique. Similar defeats were suffered as these radicalized the membership, strengthening the drift to Socialism while weakening faith in "labor statesmanship."

By mandating that all Grand Lodge officers, except the Assistant General Secretary-Treasurer, be elected by referendum, the 1905 Convention made O'Connell directly vulnerable to growing discontent at the grass roots. He survived challenges in 1907 and 1909 but by 1911 his leadership, already weakened by the rising tide of Socialism, was further wounded by his friendship with a corrupt business representative named George Warner. As DBR of District 15 in New York and a delegate to the AFL, Warner was one of O'Connell's most powerful allies in the union. However, he was tarnished by evidence that he had taken bribes from the Erie Railroad in exchange for labor peace. Warner denied wrong-doing and remained popular and powerful in his own district. Feelings ran so high elsewhere, however, that delegates to the 1907 Convention rejected a Credentials Committee recommendation that Warner be seated despite a challenge from the floor. When O'Connell was finally certain of Warner's guilt he demanded his expulsion. He then refused to let Warner go out with an honorary withdrawal card which offended Warner's supporters and added to O'Connell's opposition in the organization.

From remarks he made later O'Connell clearly sensed his time had run out after the 1909 Convention. He claimed he decided not to run in 1911 but changed his mind only because he thought his withdrawal might be seen as cowardice. After being defeated in a referendum vote by District 44 President William H. Johnston, 15,300 to 13,300, O'Connell had to endure the humiliation of presiding as a lame duck over the bitterly hostile Grand Lodge Convention that met in Davenport, Iowa. He noted in closing remarks that feelings ran so high "It needed only a match to have fired the magazine of secession among the men in this convention." He also reminded them, with understandable resentment, that not a single delegate rose at any time to thank him for the years in which he held the IAM together when there was barely enough cash in the treasury to buy postage stamps. No one stood to salute his skill in leading a small, struggling organization safely through hard-fought battles with some of the largest and most powerful railroads in the land. To the contrary, the delegates rubbed salt in his wounds by voting to prohibit any member of the IAM from ever again "holding office in or becoming connected with the Nation Civic Federation." This prohibition remained in the IAM Constitution for decades, long after anyone could remember what the NCF was or why there was a ban against it in the constitution. The delegates also tried to ensure that future IP's could not exert the degree of influence O'Connell had achieved while chairing a long succession of Grand Lodge Conventions. The Socialist bloc voted to do away with regularly scheduled Conventions altogether. They directed that future constitutional amendments should be submitted to biennial membership referendums. 

O'Connell was not the only advocate of bread and butter business unionism to be swept under a Socialist tide in the labor movement in 1911. Raging unemployment and hard times radicalized members in many unions. "Pure and simple" trade unionists such as O'Connell were defeated for top offices that year in the Hatters, Pattern Makers, Journeymen Tailors, Sheetmetal Workers and Carpenters.

O'Connell himself was still relatively young, only fifty-three, in 1911. As a long-time friend and ally of Sam Gompers, he kept his seat as a vice president of the AFL for some years despite IAM efforts to have him replaced by Johnston. O'Connell lived for another quarter of a century, heading the AFL's Metal Trades Department until forced to resign by failing health in 1934. He died in Washington at the age of seventy-eight in 1936.


The Johnston Era

 

History


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