by Robert G. Rodden

Class Warfare in the 1920's

While the war lasted and America needed an unbroken flow of armaments, the federal government forced employers to recognize and deal with unions to insure labor peace. With the war over, big business began to drive unions from America's work places. While attending the Peace Conference in Paris, Wilson cabled home uplifting sentiments about the workers' right to share "in some organic way" in decisions affecting the work place. But "over here" the corporations grimly resolved to turn the clock back.

The opening offensive came in the steel industry. At the war's end the steel companies were swimming in profits. yet their workers remained among the most exploited in America. Largely first or second generations immigrants, the men who labored over the open hearths in the nation's steel mills were victimized by starvation wages and barbaric working conditions. In other industries the eight-hour day was fast becoming standard. In the steel mills workers were still forced to work twelve hours a day and six days a week. At least a third earned less than a subsistence wage and three-quarters were below a minimum standard of comfort.

In September, 1919, some 350,000 workers walked off their jobs in the belt of steel cities and towns that extends from Gary and Hammond to Cleveland and Youngstown and on to Pittsburgh, Johnstown and Buffalo.

In October, President Wilson called an industrial conference of representatives of labor, business and the public to try to find peaceful ways of dealing with this strike as well as others brewing on the railroads and other basic industries. As leader of the labor delegation, Sam Gompers offered a resolution asking the conference to name a six-member panel to arbitrate the steel strike, then in its fifth week. The president of U.S. Steel, Elbert Gary, flatly rejected this proposal. Gompers then offered another resolution affirming " The right of wage-earners to organize, without discrimination; to bargain collectively; to be represented by representatives of their own choosing in negotiations with employers in respect to wages, hours and conditions of employment." Gary also vetoed this second resolution. Gompers led the union men out of the hall, defiantly warning the employers,

You have defeated us in our proposition, but you have not broken one line of this movement of ours, nor have you crushed the spirit of that movement. The word you have spoken here means nothing. You have defeated the labor group in its declaration, but we will meet you again in conference and when we do . . . you will be glad to talk collective bargaining.
The steel strike went on. Over the next four months the steel companies, aided by state and local governments, waged merciless warfare on the workers and their families. State troopers rode down their picket lines and judges sent them to jail. Employers planted spies in union halls and sheriffs suppressed the civil liberties of union leaders. Twenty strikers were killed and countless others clubbed without mercy. The strike finally collapsed. later an Inter-Church Commission of Inquiry found, "The United States Steel Corporation was to big to be beaten by 300,000 workers. It had too large a cash surplus, too many allies among business . . . government . . . the press and the pulpit."

The NAM and The American Plan

Encouraged by the victory of the steel magnates, other industries went on a rampage of union-busting. The new President, Warren Harding an empty-headed Republican machine politician from Ohio, campaigned on the slogan "Back to Normalcy." To employers this signaled federal approval of union-busting. Over the next few years the National Association of Manufacturers urged all employers to operate on what they called the American Plan. Quite simply the American Plan was the old-fashioned open shop. Most employers didn't need much urging. But the few who were willing to go on negotiating and dealing with unions were soon whipped into line. Banks called in their loans; customers cancelled orders and suppliers refused to make deliveries.

In the rush to return to their pre-war open shops employers brought out and dusted off all the old union-busting tactics: yellow dog contracts, injunctions, blacklists, labor spies and using thugs like Pearl Bergoff to pistol whip pickets and move scabs through picket lines.

The IAM's old enemy, the National Metal Trades Association, pushed the American Plan throughout the metal trades industry. The NMTA offered a complete line of blacklisting, spying and strikebreaking services. In 1921 their membership and income rose 400%. The effectiveness of the blacklist was described many years lager by an old time member who served as president of Local Lodge 439 in Cleveland during World War I. He told how he went to apply for a job after the war "and was refused before I had a chance to open my mouth." When he asked for an explanation "the employer simply pulled my photograph out from inside his desk." With metalworking employers everywhere applying pressures such as these the IAM's membership went into a tailspin. In a span of four years membership plunged from more than 330,000 to less than 78,000.

As the IAM's membership melted so did many of the hard-won benefits gained during the war years. The president of the NMTA exulted,

"Thousands of employers . . . have decided to lengthen the basic week to fifty, fifty-four or fifty-five hours, being convinced that a shorter work week is uneconomic and that to work a longer week, paying overtime for all hours over the forty-four or forty-eight hour week is merely another way of increasing wages."
He sternly trumpeted "that the abnormally high wages which have recently prevailed must recede before we can expect to return to a normal basis." In thousands of work places, seniority clauses evaporated and workers were once again at the mercy of foremen. Workers who had fought for grievance procedures once more had to "take it or leave it."

Having failed to drive the Machinists out of Cincinnati in the winter of 1915-1916, the NMTA set out to do it in 1919. An NMTA official later admitted "It was not a question of wages or hours; it was a question of whether Cincinnati was going to be made an open shop town."

In the test of strength that followed, 8,000 Machinists were driven out on strike. While some of the smaller firms defied the NMTA and settled after three months, the IAM was under attack on several fronts. Between January 1, 1919 and June 30, 1920, the Grand Lodge mailed out more than $1,750,000 in strike benefits, including $240,000 to striking members in Cincinnati. After five months more than half the members in Cincinnati had either moved to other cities, taken out retirement cards or dropped out of the union. All the gains made during the war were lost.

The disastrous membership slide in the early '20's was hastened by a demoralizing defeat in a two-year strike against American Can Company. This was an all-out effort, formally endorsed by a $1.00 per member assessment on all members, including specialists and helpers as well as journeymen, voted by the 1920 Grand Lodge Convention in Rochester and ratified by referendum.*

*The assessment made in the American Can strike in the early 1920's was the IAM's last formal union-wide effort to assess the entire membership although voluntary collections continue to be made in response to circulated appeals made on behalf of specific strikes or natural disasters.
The strike affected all the company's fifty-six plants. The primary issues were wages, union recognition and changes in the company's incentive system. American Cans counter-attack  was designed and directed by the NMTA. Newspapers and politicians helped the company whip up public hysteria against "Reds", radicals and labor "agitators." Though the IAM launched a desperate secondary boycott the strikers finally faced the humiliation of going, hat-in-   hand, for individual rehiring on a plant-by-plant basis.

When the strike was formally called off in January 1922 the union's reserves were badly depleted. As a result the IAM was unprepared for the massive blow about to be struck by the railroad industry.

The Great Railroad Strike of 1922, 
A Toe in The Political Waters



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of Siouxland Lodge 1426 IAMAW
Greg Enright