by Robert G. Rodden

The Railway Labor Act and Company Unionism

The IAM's survival, like that of the other shop craft unions on the railroads, was in no small part due to the Railway Labor Act of 1926. In essence it imposed upon employers and employees a general duty to make every reasonable effort to settle disputes by private negotiation aided by government mediation and recommendations. It prohibited either party, while statutory procedures were under way, to change the conditions out of which the dispute arose. Employers could not alter wages or working conditions and workers could not strike while negotiators were seeking agreement.

The Railway Labor Act helped to slow the spread of the American Plan in what was then one of America's largest and most important industries. More significantly the courts ruled that under its provisions railroad managements could not promote company unions if their employees wanted to belong to legitimate labor organizations.

In the 1920's, many, if not most, major railroads (and, in fact, many of America's largest corporations) forced their workers to join and pay dues to puppet organizations set up and controlled by management. Some of these company unions offered a wide variety of employee benefits such as profit-sharing and bonuses, company insurance and pensions, company magazines and many other sweeteners intended to make workers feel they were all part of "one big family"--service pins, veterans clubs, athletic teams, payroll propaganda slips, and even brass bands and country clubs. Company unions seemed to give employees a kind of pretend unionism, but actually tightened management's grip on the work force. Their object was to keep workers out of genuine unions. To a large extent they were successful. The section on organizing in the Officers' Report to the 1928 Grand Lodge Convention admitted that company unions hurt IAM organizing by offering workers some benefits they might otherwise try to get by joining the IAM. The report mentioned other factors then handicapping the IAM's organizing efforts. These have a familiar ring even in the 1980's. They were:

(1) Fear--"Widespread unemployment has struck fear into the hearts of workers."

(2) Technological Change--Improved machinery and power sources resulting in greater productivity meant "fewer men being employed per unit of production both in manufacturing and on the railroads.

(3) Illegal management conduct--Many railroad managements were disregarding both the letter and spirit of the Railway Labor Act and it was apparent "certain managements do not propose to permit employees on their properties to benefit . . . under this law."

(4) Outside distractions--"The motion picture, radio and automobile afford . . . relaxation from the daily grind of the factory . . . We are passing through a phase that might be termed frivolous . . . Arguments on serious topics are a drug on the market."

A report on the special problems of organizing in the fast-growing auto repair industry noted that it seemed to be harder to hold mechanics after they were organized than to organize them in the first place. Workers in automobile repairing were described as a "migratory set who changed jobs frequently." It was further noted that "the garage owners are urged, if not ordered, by [their industry association] not to allow their plants to become unionized.

The 1928 Grand Lodge Convention, held in Atlanta, to commemorate the IAM's fortieth anniversary was a trip down memory lane for many old-timers. At one point the entire delegate body made a pilgrimage to Talbot's grave. Two original charter members who had been with Talbot in the historic locomotive pit 40 years earlier, Henry Garrett and Mike Reilly, were honored guests. Johnston and O'Connell were both invited to speak, as was one of Talbot's daughters. By this time O'Connell was a silver-haired seventy-year old, but was still going strong as president of the Metal Trades Department of the AFL.

According to contemporary newspapers, business had never been better. But these delegates from America's work places had a different view of Coolidge prosperity. Resolutions and committee reports pointed to the steady increase in chronic unemployment. One committee attributed rising joblessness to "the introduction and installation of mechanical equipment of high producing capacity." The convention called for a five-day, 40-hour week and a system of unemployment insurance "in which employers, employees an society as a whole would share the responsibility of unemployment." These proposals were not realistically attainable in 1928. But the delegates were even more utopian in recommending "that each state in the union should have an old-age pension law." The idea of a Federal social security system was too far fetched to even be suggested. When the fortieth anniversary convention adjourned delegates expected to meet again in 1932. But eight years were to pass before the IAM could afford another convention.

Boom and Bust

People who were young in the 1920's often recall the decade through a haze of golden nostalgia. It has been called everything from "The Jazz Age" to "the Era of Wonderful Nonsense." It was a time of rumble seats an bathtub gin, of flappers and flivvers, of wild and syncopated dances like the Black Bottom and the Charleston, of Stutz Bearcats and coonskin coats, a time of such larger-than-life heroes as the Sultan of Swat, the Manassas Mauler and the Galloping Ghost (otherwise known as Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Red Grange). It was a time of instant fads like Mah Jong and crazy phrases like "It's the Bees Knees." It was a time when families traded the piano in the parlor for a "wireless" and took turns at night listening through headphones as a time when anyone could get rich. Messengers played the market on margin and shoeshine boys put deposits on options to buy Florida land. The Republican candidate in the 1928 Presidential election, Herbert Hoover, pledged "A chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage."

As historian Frederick Lewis Allen pointed out the great majority of working families failed to get even a fingerhold on the prosperity bandwagon of the twenties. For working people these were years of tension, unrest, discontent and anxiety. it was a decade of economic chaos, breeding violence between labor and management. At least half the population lived in poverty. Farmers became the first to suffer with farm prices falling by half between 1920 and 1927. Farm families fled the countryside, flooding the cities by the tens of thousands. By increasing the competition for industrial jobs they further depressed the wages and working standards of city workers.

The Seeds of The Great Depression

With unions smashed in steel and on the railroads, management tightened the American Plan noose on what was left of the labor movement in the 1920's. Unions were shellshocked by a steady barrage of court injunctions, yellow -dog contracts, professional strikebreaking services and company unions. The membership of the AFL melted from more than five million in 1920 to less than three million by 1930.

The legendary prosperity of the 1920's was limited largely to the moneyed  classes. These were boom times for employers, bankers, landlords, professionals and speculators. Few wage-earners could demand a fair share of the general plenty. As employers freed themselves from unions they squeezed even greater production and profits out of workers.

During the decade of the 1920's worker productivity rose 51%. But with unions too weak to negotiate a fair share of this increased productivity, wages went up only 2% while the incomes of the employing class rose 41%! The end result was easily predictable. Industrial productivity outran the ability of working families to consume. As inventories piled up, factories began to lay off workers, reducing the purchasing power of the work force and leading to more layoffs. The economy was sucked into a downward whirlpool of accelerating unemployment. Economists tried to explain the catastrophe with pontifications about "overproduction." They were talking nonsense. The Great Depression was not caused by overproduction, but by underconsumption. While there may have been other contributing causes such as runaway stock and land speculation, inequitable taxes and business-minded monetary policies, the primary cause of the Great Depression was the unfair distribution of income brought on by government encouragement of big business greed. The seeds of the Great Depression were planted the day the NAM set out to destroy unionism with its so-called "American Plan."

The Great Depression and The New Deal 1930~1940, Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Winters of Discontent, The Norris-LaGuardia Act



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of Siouxland Lodge 1426 IAMAW
Greg Enright