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
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
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"
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
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.
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.