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History

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

Internal Feuds and factions--"Catholics" versus "Masons"

While Conlon was fighting for the eight hour day in New England and Cincinnati, two factions were struggling for control of the IAM. One drew its strength chiefly from the old-line Southerners, the traditional railroad machinists and grass-roots Populists in small town lodges. This faction, which supported Johnston, was called "the Masons" by their adversaries. The second faction included followers of Carl Person who were still blaming Johnston for the defeat on the Harriman Lines, but was made up mainly of big city lodges, job shops, construction and erection machinists and remaining packets of radicalism left over from the International Machinists Union. They were referred to as "the Catholics." At that time prejudices based on religion were far stronger and more prevalent than they are today. The revival of the Ku Klux Klan, following the filming of The Birth Of A Nation in 1915, indicates the depth of racial and religious animosities in the early decades of this century. Though never in the open, as far as the Journal and other IAM records are concerned, sectarian rivalries certainly contributed to the divisions that wrenched the IAM during this period. At the same time it should be recognized that factions within the union were not formed strictly around religion. The leader of the so-called "Catholic" group, J. F. Anderson, was a Mormon, while Conlon, firmly allied with the "Mason" faction that supported Johnston, was a devout Catholic.

The schism between these contending factions was sharpened after members voted by referendum to put the five member General Executive Board on full time status and reduce the number of GVP's from seven to two--one from Canada and one from the United States.  Though Conlon received the most nominations in the race for the American vice presidency he lost the election, 14,841 to 14,209. The victor, J. F. Anderson, had been a GVP since 1914.

A number of factors contributed to this razor-thin but nonetheless shocking result. During the nine months in which Conlon was tied down in Cincinnati, Anderson was politicking in lodges from Virginia to new England. His reports for the months running from September, 1915 to May, 1916 show that he spoke to and visited with lodges in Virginia, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

On the eve of the election Conlon seemed to realize that he would suffer from his failure to travel around and rebuild his own political fences. In his report to the May, 1916 Journal he expressed regret that the situation in Cincinnati prevented him from accepting many invitations to visit local lodges. Normally lack of time to go out and press the flesh would not have hurt Conlon. His reputation as one of the original boomers and the IAM's top organizer for so many years would have been enough to insure his reelection. But this was a period in which new members were surging into the union in unprecedented numbers. Between September, 1915 and June, 1916 the IAM grew from 71,000 to 113,000. One out of every three members was new to the union. While Anderson was traveling around from lodge to lodge, meeting and shaking hands, most of these new members had never heard of Conlon.

Conlon was also caught in the backlash of the resentment Carl Person had generated against Johnston. Conlon's loyalty to Johnston undoubtedly eroded support from members who were still smarting over Johnston's decision to abandon the strike on the Harriman Lines.

Following his defeat Conlon went back to his home in Virginia to shed the months of exhaustion accumulated in hotel rooms in New England and Cincinnati. Johnston gave him little time to lick his wounds. Within a few weeks Conlon was back in harness as a General Organizer, appointed by Johnston to negotiate a new contract for machinists employed by the American Locomotive Works in Dunkirk, New York. He continued to serve without interruption for the rest of his life, first as an organizer, and after 1921, once more as a GVP.

The Removal of George Preston

Conlon was not the only long-time veteran to be swept up by internal dissension. Soon after George Preston was reelected General Secretary-Treasurer by the membership in the 1916 election, he was suspended from office by the General Executive Board.

Preston had many good qualities. As the IAM's chief financial officer his integrity was unquestioned. Following the fiasco of the disappearing treasurer, J. J. Lamb, in 1893, the IAM needed a GST who could establish a tradition of scrupulous honesty and competent accounting in the handling of IAM funds. In George Preston that is what they got. But in Preston these assets were offset by a prickly, disagreeable, thin-skinned personality. He was quick to take offense and impossible to work with. Even Conlon, who defended Preston's competency at the 1916 Convention, admitted he was "crabby" in his dealings with others.

Soon after being reelected in the 1916 election Preston seemed to go out of his way to alienated Johnston and various members of the General Executive Board. For example, he left the Canadian member of the GEB, James Somerville, stranded without funds in a remote town in Alberta because Somerville addressed his voucher to the Assistant General Secretary-Treasurer instead of Preston. Out of what seemed to be Preston's pure cussedness Somerville had to wire Johnston for enough train fare to get out of town. Moreover, after the members voted to hold a Grand Lodge Convention in 1916--the first since 1911--Preston dawdled and procrastinated until it was too late to make arrangements for a convention city more centrally located than the site finally selected, Baltimore. When he should have been making convention arrangements, Preston perversely left town on a junket of his own without informing Johnston. This gave the GEB an excuse they were looking for. Citing a constitutional provision prohibiting the GST from leaving Grand Lodge without the IP's authorization the GEB exercised its power to suspend Grand Lodge officers.

Preston appealed to the 1916 Grand Lodge Convention in Baltimore. The delegates went into executive session, selecting a general organizer named Emmet Davison as chairman. For three days they thrashed over the facts and issues in Preston's case. The suspended GST's own vinegary personality undoubtedly turned off some who might have supported him in recognition of his many years of honest and competent service. In the end the delegates passed the buck by referring the matter back to the membership. They ordered a special election.

The delegates also acted to reinstate regularly scheduled Grand Lodge Conventions after Johnston told them that the 1911 Convention's experiment in government by referendum alone was not working. He pointed out that

It extends to every member of every lodge an invitation to send in proposed amendments to the Constitution, many of which are given but little thought, so that when the Law Committee meets they have so many amendments of such a varied character that it is an almost impossible task to present them in a condensed and comprehensive form, and there is a general complaint that the amendments approved and disapproved are so voluminous that the average member has not the time to properly consider the question he is asked to vote on.


Emmet Davison~Shirt-sleeve GST and "Mr. Mayor"
"The Indigestible Mass"

 

History


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