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History

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


Pete Conlon (1928)

The Battle of Cincinnati, 1915

In September, 1915 Johnston sent Pete Conlon to Cincinnati with instructions to organize as he had in New England. Cincinnati was a major center of the metal trades industry. It was also one of the NMTAs primary strongholds. When Conlon arrived he found that news of the IAM's successful eight hour day campaign in New England had created a receptive mood among working people. A mass meeting brought out 1,800 journeymen five days after Conlon got to town. This was topped by even a larger rally five days later. Despite torrential rains machinists packed the meeting hall to suffocation.

The Cincinnati Metal Trades Association counter-attacked by notifying all machinists in the city that planned bonuses were being jeopardized by outside labor agitators. This was followed by a story in a local political smear sheet called The Cincinnati Republican. It accused Conlon of conspiring with the Austrian consul and a certain "Doctor Ludwig" to dynamite a local machine tool company. Copies of this scurrilous sheet, mailed to machinists throughout the city, called for Conlon's death.

Despite such tactics machinists streamed to IAM headquarters night after night to be initiated. In two weeks 1,200 were obligated. The Cincinnati Metal Trades Association issued a general announcement that it "would not concede the eight hours work day no matter what the consequences would be." This triggered a chain reaction. That same day machinists walked out of four shops and marched to IAM headquarters with their tool boxes. Over the next few days nine more shops went out and 800 machinists paraded down Walnut Street with signs and banners demanding the eight hour day. By the middle of October, 1,672 men at twenty-two firms were out. After Johnston came in from Washington and addressed a mass rally the strike spread to other shops in Cincinnati as well as Hamilton, Springfield and Dayton.

Employers continued to resist with time-tested tactics. Conlon reported to the Journal that thousands of dollars were being spent by foremen on bee busts and entertainments, police were breaking up IAM picket lines, plainclothesmen were escorting strike breakers from home to work, and judge sentenced prisoners to work in scab shops, local newspapers were only printing items detrimental to the strikers and, Conlon wrote "the scurrilous sheet call The Cincinnati Republican has been mailed to all the strikers weekly filled with the most sensational and libelous stuff."

By this time Conlon had been under heavy pressure for at least a year. While leading the fight for the eight hour day in New England two of his sons almost died of typhoid fever back home in Virginia. They were barely recovered when Johnston sent Conlon to stir up the eight hour day fire in Cincinnati. Non-stop tension finally took its toll. Conlon collapsed under a combination of flu and nervous indigestion. His doctor ordered him home to the Virginia hills. Within two weeks, however, he was back in Cincinnati, setting up a commissary to help get the strikers' families through the hard, cold winter to come. Conlon explained, "We can save 25 percent by bringing in wholesale quantities [which] together with savings on distribution and profit enables the strikers to get twice as much for the money." He also reported "Every striker in Cincinnati is guaranteed assistance as long as he will do picket duty."

As the strike dragged on, employers spurned offers of mediation by the U.S. Department of Labor. They called government efforts "outside meddling" and reaffirmed their determination to accept no settlement other than unconditional surrender. A number of employers secretly admitted to Conlon they were being held in line by threats to ruin their credit or otherwise run them out of business. Others made under-the-table deals but were too frightened by the Cincinnati Metal Trades Association to put anything into writing.

The employers had little trouble finding a judge to issue an injunction prohibiting strikers from interfering with the comings and goings of scabs. Machinists parading near the Niles Tool Works got into a cursing and shoving match with strikebreakers coming off the day shift. Insults soon turned into fist fights. Fifty-seven union members were arrested and charged with contempt. Handing down his decision on Christmas Eve, the judge released nineteen of the men, fining the other thirty-eight a total of $320. After caucusing the men refused to pay the fine, saying they would rather go to jail. The judge offered to hold the case over the holidays so they could spend Christmas with their families if they would post $250 bail. Again they refused and were ready to go to jail until Conlon persuaded them to put up the bond so they could spend Christmas with their families. Conlon himself stayed in Cincinnati through the holidays to see that striking families received Christmas baskets along with the toys for the children.

Employers in Hamilton were the first to compromise, conceding the nine hour day with a five percent wage increase but most in Cincinnati held out. From the original twenty-two shops and 1,672 men who went out in October, 1915 the strike spread to 113 shops an 3,680 men by May 1, 1916. By this time companies were offering strikers a $1.25 an hour to desert and were paying out-of-town scabs premium wages plus hotel expenses. The IAM retaliated by shipping thousands of Cincinnati's most skilled journeymen to booming munitions plants starved for skilled labor in New England. In the June, 1916 Journal Conlon wrote that the employer's solid front was finally cracking. Agreements had been signed with twenty-four plants setting a forty-eight hour work week with no reduction in pay and time and a half for more than eight and one-half hours a day. He reported more agreements were pending with nineteen other shops and nine breweries.

 


Internal Feuds and Factions~ "Catholics vs. Masons"
The Removal of George Preston

 

History


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