by Robert G. Rodden

The Wharton Years

Wharton had made his reputation not only in the IAM, but throughout the labor movement for his part in the 1911 strike against the Illinois Central and Harriman Lines. As the IAM's representative to this early stab at coordinated bargaining, he became everybody's choice to head the six shop crafts negotiating team--the so-called Federation Federations. Later, when these six organizations created a formal Railway Employee's Department in the AFL, they elected Wharton as first president. When he agreed to be drafted to lead his own union, he took a substantial cut in salary--from $10,000 to $7,500 a year. he did so to halt the dissension which, as he said, "was wrecking the organization to a degree no outside agency had been able to accomplish." However, he made it clear, both to the Executive Council and the 1928 Grand Lodge Convention, that he would not uproot his family and would continue to consider Chicago his home. This meant daily reimbursement for "out-of-town" expenses whenever he was in Washington. It also made him vulnerable to sniping by verbal sharpshooters in the local lodges.*

*And led to a referendum in 1933 which cut off Wharton's daily out-of-town expense allowance by defining Washington, D.C. as the designated home base for the International President.
Wharton was born in 1873 into a mixed Anglo-Indian homesteading family on a remote and windswept plain in Kansas. While still a young boy his mother was widowed when his father got lost in a blizzard and froze to death. At fourteen he began a machinist apprenticeship on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. Upon becoming a journeyman in 1890 Wharton joined the IAM and went to work for the Union Pacific soon after. There he helped organize several lodges and was a leader of a strike against that road in 1893. Over the next several years he remained active in union affairs and was elected to a number of local and district lodge offices. In 1903, at the age of thirty, he became general chairman of the district representing IAM members on the Missouri Pacific Railroad.

While President of the Railway Employee's Department Wharton also served as labor representative on a number of federal agencies, including the Railroad Labor Board. his scorching dissents to the wage-cutting, rules-wrecking decisions that touched off the 1922 shop craft strike made him a hero to shop craft workers.

Wharton has been described as "short in stature with a broad forehead and piercing eyes." He was normally stiff, formal and correct in his relationships with others.* Old-time employees remembered him as somewhat distant and

*However soon after assuming office Wharton took care of Johnston, who had no pension or other source of income, by arranging for a position with the IAM-owned Mr. Vernon Bank. As noted the bank went under following the '29 crash and Johnston died penniless at the age of 63 in 1937.
aloof. Reportedly Wharton rarely felt comfortable with the more friendly and outgoing Davison. Relations between the two became increasingly strained, so much so that people working for the two departments, the I.P. and the G.S.T., said that it was like working for two different organizations. Even so, Wharton continued to command enormous respect from his contemporaries in other railroad unions.

Philosophically Wharton was a craft trade unionist in the Gompers and O'Connell mold. Rejecting the IAM's brief experimentation with direct political action Wharton told the members "We will be less visionary and more practical by concentrating our efforts in the direction of securing immediate and material benefits." This was the Gompers creed of bread and butter, or business, unionism in a nutshell. In laying out the policies that would guide his administration Wharton returned to the first principles on which Talbot had founded the union almost four decades earlier: "To reduce strikes to a minimum to establish cooperative relations with every employer who is willing to recognize our association and establish mutually satisfactory contractual relations." It was his fate to have to steer the IAM through the most terrible depression in history. In the beginning, though, he was fortunate in that the hemorrhaging of membership that began in 1920 had been staunched. By 1926 membership stabilized around 70,000. This is about what it had been in 1913 and this is where it stayed until the collapse of the American economy in the early 1930's.

The Railway Labor Act and Company Unionism, Boom and Bust,
The Seeds of The Great Depression



Comments or Suggestions? E-mail the Communications Officer
of Siouxland Lodge 1426 IAMAW
Greg Enright