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History

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

Emmet Davison--Shirt-sleeve GST and "Mr. Mayor"

In the special election ordered by the 1916 Grand Lodge Convention Emmet Davison, the chairman of the executive session, was Preston's opponent. Even with the endorsements and backing of the entire General Executive Board, he managed to unseat Preston by a margin of only 1,800 votes out of a total of more than 35,000.

Born in Virginia in 1878, Emmet Davison completed his apprenticeship and joined the IAM before enlisting as a cavalryman in the Spanish-American War. After mustering out he returned to the trade but was blacklisted for his highly visible role in the 1901 strike for the nine-hour day. Changing his name, Davison finally landed a job in a shop affiliated with the NMTA. Promoted to foreman, he was given a list of names of "agitators" who were not to be hired.

The first name he saw as his own. Within a few years Davison was elected business representative of Local Lodge 10 in Richmond--Creamer's old home lodge. In 1913, Johnston appointed him General Organizer. Though somewhat short in stature, Davison was robust, verging on plumpness, when he became GST at the age of 39. In later years he grew increasingly frail, in appearance but never lost a sense of merry enthusiasm for life. He liked to chase fire engines and invariably rushed to his office window when a police siren or ambulance was heard on the street below.

At the time when prejudices were raw and anti-Semitism was rampant, he not only hired a young Jewish girl as his secretary but later insisted that she be promoted to supervisor on the basis of merit. Though blacks were technically barred from membership by the ritual during Davison's 17-year tenure as GST, he turned a blind eye to the many lodges outside the South, and especially in Puerto Rico and Hawaii, where the "white only' clause was routinely ignored.

Friendly and gregarious by nature, Davison's friendships extended far beyond the union. He mixed comfortably and easily with politicians and the press. He was, in fact, a politician himself. While serving as GST he was elected and served for many years as mayor of the city of Alexandria across the Potomac River in Virginia.

Unlike many southern mayors, he sympathized with those who earned their living in his city. When a group of women struck a shirt factory in Alexandria, the owner demanded that Davison send the police over to clear out picket lines and protect his scabs. Davison responded that these women had not only been working for starvation wages but were striking against sweat shop working conditions. He also pointed out that this particular employer violated city and state safety and sanitation laws. Summarily dismissing the demand for police protection, the IAM's GST-mayor said, "There is no reason why an employer who violated the law should escape the penalty of the law. An employer who robs the women employees in manufacturing shirts by taking from them that which they have honestly earned is guilty of embezzlement and should not be permitted to use the police power of any community to protect himself from the consequences of his own acts."

Despite his political connections and other interests, Davison never lost touch with the members, remaining first and foremost a shirt-sleeve machinists at heart. On one occasion, a political bigwig and an old-time IAM member were both waiting in his outer office. His secretary asked who he wanted to see first. Without hesitation he told her to send in the old-timer.

Although his relations with Wharton became increasingly strained over the years, Davison was warmly regarded by GVP Pete Conlon, Journal Editor Fred Hewitt and other employees and staff at Grand Lodge. Until he dropped in the traces in 1944, exhausted by twenty-seven years of continuous crises, he solidified the IAM's reputation for clean and honest unionism.

The "Indigestible Mass"

With the growing labor shortage brought on by the first World War, the IAM was caught in a dilemma. The potential for new organizing became greater than ever. In many places workers were practically beating down the doors to get in the union. But few met the IAM's traditional and cherished standards of craftsmanship. New kinds of automatic machinery had split the skills of old-time all-around journeymen into fragments of simple, specialized tasks. Although the IAM reluctantly admitted specialists and helpers more than a dozen years earlier, the members were not eager to hand their union over to what the Journal called an "indigestible mass of unskilled handymen." Still, these unskilled and semi-skilled workers could not be ignored since they performed traditional machinists' functions.

Early in 1917 the Journal noted the influx of "thousands of men, who in the future will be a menace to us if left outside . . . a horde of unskilled men who, if not where we can control them, will create a condition which we contemplate with fear and anxiety." In the end the IAM had no alternative but to take the "menace" in where it could be watched and controlled. The gates to IAM membership swung open to admit more and more specialists. From April 1917, when the United States entered hostilities, to April 1919  when the IAM hit its World War I peak, membership skyrocketed from 119,977 to 323,134.

Many of these new members were fresh off the farm. Few had ever seen the inside of a factory. The critical shortage of labor increased their militancy in striking for higher wages and shorter hours but, as later events proved, their acceptance into the union did not make them trade unionists.


The War in The War Plants, 
The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919

 

History


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of Siouxland Lodge 1426 IAMAW
Greg Enright