by Robert G. Rodden

The Johnston Era

Johnston was thirty-seven when he took office as International President. He was bald, short, stocky and powerfully built. Though somewhat forbidding in appearance, he was described by those who knew him as good natured and amiable. Johnston was well read, commanding attention of audiences through his logic and knowledge rather than the more florid flights of oratorical rhetoric more common to that time.

Many members probably voted for Johnston because of his record and reputation as a Socialist, but he seems to have been less radical than his supporters assumed. In a letter written to the Journal as early as August, 1911, he warned that unions and political movements should ". . . remain separate and distinct, each working in its separate sphere for the uplift and final emancipation of the working class." This could have been written by O'Connell or Gompers.

Johnston's presidency was one of extremes. Under his leadership membership fluctuated wildly, bouncing up from 67,000 in 1912 to more than 300,000 in 1919, then plunging back down to 79,000 less than five years later. During the feverish growth of World War I Grand Lodge added a night shift because the day staff could not keep up with the flood of lodge charterings, membership applications, insurance claims and other paper work pouring into Washington.

Though hard-working, some say hard-driven, Johnston never quite succeeded in closing the split in IAM ranks that contributed to O'Connell's downfall. In taking office Johnston immediately inherited a problem that was to keep the union in turmoil for years to come. A few months earlier the railroad shop craft unions had agreed to a unified strike against the Illinois Central and Harriman lines. This was one of the labor movement's first attempts at coordinated bargaining. The action followed generations of fruitless efforts by various craft unions to bargain for their own members alone. For years the various unions of machinists, boilermakers, blacksmiths, sheetmetal workers and carmen had negotiated one by one. And when they went on strike management usually defeated them one by one. By joining together the shop crafts hoped to achieve through unity what they had rarely been able to achieve separately. Management dug in , determined to fight coordination to the bitter end. The strike lasted forty-five months. Originally 38,000 workers went out, including 4,000 Machinists. 

The shop crafts formalized their new found cooperation by setting up a "Federation of Federations" which later became the nucleus of the Railway Employees Department of the AFL. A machinist, Arthur O. Wharton, General Chairman of the IAM's district on the Missouri-Pacific, was chosen to head the union's negotiating team.

Delegates to the Davenport convention approved a special assessment, $2.50 for journeyman, $1.25 for apprentices, to help defray weekly benefits for the striking railroaders. GST Preston later reported that the Harriman-Illinois Central strike quadrupled the Grand Lodge's "pay roll." Although he described the response to the assessment as "perhaps the most liberal experienced by our association" it was not nearly enough to support such a long and exhausting battle.

As the strike dragged on, benefits were reduced from $8 to $6 and then to $4 a week. After two years and more than $700,000 paid out, strike benefits were suspended altogether. Still the railroad machinists refused to give up. They voted almost two to one to carry on. When Johnston finally called the strike off six months later, he was denounced and reviled in IAM railroad lodges throughout the industry.

The Lizard's Trail, 
The IAM and The First World War



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