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History

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

The B&O Plan

Throughout the 1924 Convention Johnston was harassed by a militant minority which included some who had helped him unseat O'Connell little more than a decade earlier. Johnston became vulnerable to internal attack from diehards in the aftermath of the 1922 shop craft disaster. Trying to salvage a presence in the industry he met with the president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and agreed to a formula for labor-management cooperation which became widely known as the B & O Plan.

In essence the B & O Plan was a forerunner of today's quality work circles. It provided for joint committees of workers and supervisors to meet at least once a month to talk about production and efficiency. In return for the company's agreement to recognize the union and to give the workers a fair share of increased output, employees agreed to try to raise the amount and quality of their work, to conserve materials and to make suggestions for improved methods of production. The B & O Plan was first tested in the Glenwood shops outside of Pittsburgh. From there it spread gradually to other B & O shops and eventually to a number of other railroads throughout the United Sates and Canada.

The 1924 Grand Lodge Convention received three resolutions condemning such collaboration between Johnston and management. These resolutions endorsed the class struggle and censured Johnston for "consuming much of our organization's time and finances in furthering . . . an employer's scheme that will lead to the destruction of our union." In the debate on the resolution Johnston turned the chair over to Vice President Conlon so he could speak in his own defense. He argued with eloquence and at some length that he had agreed to the B & O Plan only to give members more control of the work place. He responded to those who advocated "getting all you can and giving as little as you can" by saying that while this might be the philosophy of Communists and IWW, it was not the philosophy of the IAM. After a call for a division of the house the Convention supported Johnston 126 to 33.

The Great Red Scare

The IAM's position on Communism and Communists changed dramatically between 1920 and 1924. At the 1920 Convention in Rochester the delegates authorized Johnston and the IAM's first general counsel, Frank Muholland, to visit Russia for the purpose of promoting purchase of American-made machinery. They were refused entry to the "worker's paradise" but Johnston affirmed his "great sympathy for Russia and her people in this period of struggle for something better than absolute despotism." That was before the nation was swept by a hysteria that has com to be known as the "Great Red Scare." This period of mass panic was set off by Lenin's triumph over the Czarist regime in Russia. Millions of otherwise sensible Americans seemed to think their country was about to be taken over by Bolsheviks. Newspapers fanned public fear day after day with screaming headlines and sensational allegations of a great Red conspiracy. As early as 1920 Wilson's Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, led a series of clearly illegal raids aimed at rounding up and deporting suspected radicals. For a time free speech was practically outlawed in America as local officials joined patriotic organizations, such as the American Legion, in enforcing the "American Way." The best known historian of the 1920's, Fredrick Lewis Allen, later wrote of the Great Red Scare, "It was an era of lawless and disorderly defense of law and order, of unconstitutional defense of the Constitution, of suspicion and civil conflict--in a very literal sense, a reign of terror."*

* It is interesting to note the parallel with the similar anti-Communist hysteria that led to the rise of McCarthyism following the Second World War.
By 1924, known Reds were being driven from the union. In Toledo, seven members of Lodge 105 who joined a Communist front organization were convicted on charges of dual unionism. When Johnston rejected their appeal, the Executive Board upheld the conviction. The Convention ratified this action--thereby ruling in effect that Communist association was a prohibited from of dual unionism. The following year Johnston codified the ban on Communism in the IAM in an official circular which stated that the purpose of the Communist Party "is the destruction of the Trade Union Movement in America."

As revenues and membership continued their downward slide following the 1924 Convention, the factions opposed to Johnston gained strength. He had successfully beaten back challenges for the International Presidency in earlier elections. But the defeat of Pete Conlon in 1916 along with the election of a General Executive Board controlled by the anti-Johnston faction in 1922 indicated that this support was slipping. By 1925, GVP J. F. Anderson, who unseated Pete Conlon in 1916, decided to go for the top spot. Johnston now seemed to be as vulnerable as O'Connell had been in 1911.

When running against O'Connell, Johnston advocated a "progressive" platform and cooperation with the Socialist Party. By the early 1920's he had become more conservative. As the war-time gains melted under the heat of post-war employer resistance Johnston swung back toward the Gompers and O'Connell philosophy o craft trade unionism. This repelled some of his supporters. Others were alienated when he endorsed the B & O Plan. Still others were antagonized when he defined membership in Communist front organizations as dual unionism.

In the campaign Anderson criticized Johnston for spending union time and money on the Conference for Progressive Political Action, for leaving Grand Lodge to attend political conventions and for his travels to Mexico and Russia. He also exploited a nostalgic yearning among old-time journeymen for the craft-conscious unionism of earlier times. Anderson hit a nerve in campaign literature demanding that "the leaders quit offering the IAM as an asylum for all who have had machine shop soil on their hands. Let us maintain it for real machinists . . . We have opened our arms to everybody . . . we should give first consideration the ourselves."

According to the March 1925 Journal the lines between contending factions within the union were more sharply drawn than ever before. The campaign took a venomous turn when The Daily Worker denounced Johnston as a "tool of the bosses." The official organ of the Communist Party called on "militants" in the IAM to defeat Johnston and his slate. In fairness it should be noted that the Party did not get commitments it demanded from Anderson, namely to fight the B & O Plan, reinstate the Toledo Seven, stop persecuting "militants" (i.e. Communists" and to work for amalgamation of the metal trades (i.e. one big union). According to the long-time editor of the Journal, Fred Hewitt, the Communists tried to elect Anderson "not because they loved him more, but because they loved Johnston less." Throughout the campaign mud was slung from all sides. Hewitt described it as "the most vicious in our entire history" and reported "all sorts of ridiculous, trumped-up charges hurled at candidates for office . . . Locals were flooded with circular letters of such a vile character that in many lodges they were consigned to the wastebasket."

Johnston survived the challenge but just barely. He won by only 945 votes out of more than 35,000 cast. Before the dust settled Anderson circulated a paper titled "The Story of the Big Steal" to all IAM lodges. He charged GST Emmet Davison with election fraud, alleging the GST peeked at the tally sheets before Anderson's observer arrived for the counting of the ballots. Anderson claimed that when Davison saw Johnston's slate, including himself, was behind, he contacted a number of friendly business representatives and urged them to rush more Johnston votes to Grand Lodge.

A thorough investigation by a panel that included Anderson himself, demolished these accusations. Microscopic examination of postmarks which Anderson claimed were May 13 (which would have been after the official close of the balloting) proved they were actually May 3. Moreover, it was found that if Davison had chosen to be strictly technical he could have thrown out some 2,000 votes counted for Anderson while disqualifying only 100 of Johnston's ballots on the same ground.

Though Anderson's allegations did not hold up under scrutiny, his supporters pressed noisily on. They initiated a recall petition aimed at the entire Executive Council and set out to collect the needed number of endorsements. Some were sent in the name of lodges that had become defunct. Others were mailed without the knowledge of officers and members of local lodges.

During the summer of 1925 IAM lodges seethed with discord and dissension. Charges and counter-charges swarmed back and forth like angry wasps. The rupture threatened to tear the organization apart. Under constant pressure Johnston collapsed, felled by a stroke from which he never fully recovered. Vice President Pete Conlon took over as acting president.

Throughout the fall and winter Conlon and others moved to bind the union's wounds. When it came time for the Executive Council to choose a successor to the stricken IP, Conlon would appear to have been the logical choice. he was popular and, as resident GVP, had experience as Johnston's second in command at Grand Lodge. But with the Ku Klux Klan at its height in 1926 his religion may have been the factor that ruled him out.* In fact many years later

*Today it is difficult to comprehend how powerful the KKK became in the 1920's. According to Frederick Lewis Allen its membership reached 4.5 million by 1924 and it wielded "Great political power, dominating for a time . . . Oregon, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Indiana, Ohio and California. Its chief strongholds were in the South, the Middle West and the Pacific Coast, but it had invaded almost every part of the country and had even reached the gates of the stronghold of sophistication . . . New York City."
Roy Siemiller recalled that when he came on the field staff in the mid-30's, Conlon's memory and influence were still fresh in the union and several members of the Executive Council admitted that Conlon would have been IP if he had not been a Catholic. Having dedicated most of his life to the IAM, Conlon someone removed from the recent bloodletting could heal the wounds. When Johnston officially resigned on July 1, 1926, Conlon joined the rest of the Executive Council in asking Arthur O. Wharton to leave the Presidency of the Railway Employees Department and accept the leadership of the IAM.


The Wharton Years

 

History


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of Siouxland Lodge 1426 IAMAW
Greg Enright