Repression And Retreat 1920--1930
During the Great War 1914-1918 the Wilson Administration gave
unions more recognition than they ever had before. From Colonial times
state and federal governments usually helped employers fight unions.
But President Wilson, seeking to grease the wheels of war production,
believed unionized workers, with grievance procedures would be
more productive than individual workers with grievances.
This unprecedented government encouragement, together with the
rapid buildup at arsenals, armaments and ammunition plants, shipyards
and other metalworking operations, swelled IAM membership to
previously unimagined heights. By the end of 1918, the IAM was
America's largest union.
Wages and working conditions were good and getting better. The
future never looked so rosy. And when the government took over
operation of the nation's railroads the outlook seemed even brighter.
The IAM had advocated public ownership of public utilities since 1899.
Now Johnston and other top IAM officers were confident that government
operation would prove so efficient the railroads would never be turned
back to private ownership.
The newly appointed Railroad Commissioner, William McAdoo, was
Wilson's son-in-law and one of the leading progressives of his time.
As railroad commissioner he banned discrimination against railroad
workers because of union membership and established a system of
National Adjustment Boards to settle grievances and disputes. With
this protection the IAM's membership soared in the nation's railroad
roundhouses. Even the most stubbornly open shop railroad in the
county--the rich and powerful Pennsylvania--was organized. By 1919 IAM
membership went over the 300,00 mark, almost triple what it had been
when the 1916 Grand Lodge Convention was held in Baltimore.
At the war's end the IAM waged a vigorous but fruitless campaign
to keep the railroads under government control. The union sponsored,
and persuaded the rest of the AFL to support, a plan known as the
Plumb Plan to transfer ownership of the railroads permanently to the
federal government. Union spokesmen argued that railroads should be
operated for the public interest rather than for private profit.
Congress, in its infinite wisdom, voted for "normalcy." In
January 1919, rail properties were returned to their private owners.
At the headquarters of the American Association of Railway Executives,
the first order of business was to roll back the gains won by unions
during government operation. Industry chiefs began preparing for the
showdown that cam in 1922.
As shipyards and munitions factories closed one after another in
1919, the IAM's membership began a long, steady slide from the wartime
high. Even so the organization entered the decade that has come to be
known as "The Roaring Twenties" in a spirit of optimism.
Johnston told delegates to the 1920 Convention in Rochester that
despite increased employer opposition he was confident the membership
would reach 400,000 or even 500,000 in the next four years.
1920 railroad unions still held the gains made during the war.
Standard agreements had been negotiated and were in effect in both the
United States and Canada. They provided for union recognition,
training and seniority.
In October, 1920 the IAM resolved a
long-standing jurisdictional dispute with the Amalgamated Society of
Engineers (ASE). This was primarily a union of British
machinists with headquarters in England. In the early years
immigrating British journeymen brought their union with them and stuck
with it even after the AFL gave the IAM exclusive jurisdiction over
all employed in the machinist trade. The IAM and ASE crowded one
another from the start. A temporary peace was established in 1904 but
over the years bitter and continuing clashes made it clear the North
American continent only had room for one union of machinists.
1919, Journal editor Fred Hewitt and the Canadian GVP, J. A.
McClelland, traveled to Manchester, England to meet with delegates to
and ASE Convention. Following this meeting the Amalgamated Society of
Engineers (today called the Amalgamated Engineering Union) agreed to
withdraw entirely from the North American continent and cede its
American and Canadian "branches" to the IAM. This agreement
helped to slow, but could not stop, the postwar erosion of IAM