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History

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

The Great Depression and the New Deal 1930~1940

The Great Depression was to the 20th Century what the Civil War was to the 19th--a national trauma of unprecedented magnitude. It changed the society, the economy the government, and the American people. The Great Depression of the 1930's marked and scarred a generation. No one who lived through it was ever again quite the same.

From 1929, when the stock market crashed, to 1932, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President, national income fell by more than half. Banks came crashing down all over the country, taking with them the life savings of the middle class. Since there was no Social Security the loss of savings left many Americans face-to-face with a penniless old age. Month after month, year after year, unemployment mounted inexorably from 10% to 15% to 20% to more than 30%. along with the loss of jobs, savings, homes, farms and businesses, millions lost faith in America.

The jobless were everywhere--on the highways, in cardboard shanty towns known as Hovervilles, shuffling in long, shabby lines outside of locked factory gates, selling apples on city curbs, waiting numbly in soup lines. In The Glory and the Dream, William Manchester described them as ". . . . hungry, defeated, empty, hopeless, restless, driven by they knew not what, always on the move, looking everywhere for work, for the bare crumbs to support their miserable lives."

Through it all the big business President in the White House did worse than nothing. As millions faced hunger and homelessness, Herbert Hover responded with a stern call for a "balanced budget." although he had made his reputation administering food relief programs for starving Belgians following World War I, Hoover stiffly resisted any effort to feed starving Americans. At one point this "Great Humanitarian" reluctantly agreed to approve a $25 million appropriation to feed farm animals, but only if Congress would agree to kill a paltry $120,000 fund intended to feed hungry people.

Hoover had plenty of company among the rich and mighty and powerful. The plump and well-fed president of the NAM primly proclaimed that "If this country ever votes a dole, we've hit the toboggan as a nation." Henry Ford declared that unemployment insurance would only guarantee more unemployment. And Fortune magazine, explained how the benign workings of the free market would be subverted if corporations tried to accept social responsibilities. 

As factory gates clanged shut across the continent, machinists by the tens of thousands were thrown out of on the streets, without jobs and with little hope. From the summer of 1929, just before the stock market crash, to the late spring of 1933, when the New Deal began taking hold, IAM membership dropped from a little more than 73,000 to less than 56,000. The number on unemployment stamps went from 2,400 to 23,200.

As early as April 1930, the Journal observed
the spectacle of long bread lines, crowded employment offices, soup kitchens and hordes of hungry, heartsick, jobless men and women wandering aimlessly through our streets looking for work . . . and, on the other hand, a lavish display of riches by the few who are taking more than their share of the wealth.
By 1931 the Journal was warning members against the widespread wave of wage cuts sweeping the nation. It noted that industry was putting the screws to workers who were already among the most cruelly exploited--textile workers in New England and the South, coal miners in Appalachia, steelworkers and tobacco workers. The Journal told of one non-union factory in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in which wages were cut 70% and in which, when the workers walked out, the jobs were instantly snapped up by those even more desperate.

Requiem For a Heavyweight

The gloom of the long, dark depression winter of 1931 was deepened by the sudden and unexpected death of Pete Conlon. When struck down by a heart attack in March. Conlon was the best known and most widely beloved machinist in America. A big powerfully-built Irishman, Pete Conlon had come to symbolize that quality of courage and conviction that is summed up by the phrase "The Fighting Machinists." he was a prolific writer, and eloquent speaker and a born storyteller. More than anyone else he preserved and passed on to later generations of machinists the legends and legacy of the early boomers who laid the foundations for one of America's great unions.

Though only 61 when he died, Conlon had been around so long he had become a father figure to younger members and was revered by the old-timers. He knew thousands of IAM members by name and his door was always open the them. It was later said that rank-and-file machinists always knew they had a friend when Pete Conlon was at Grand Lodge, someone always ready to talk to old-timers dropping by, someone always ready with a dollar or two for a machinist down on his luck.

When Conlon died tributes poured in from every part of the nation. Even Herbert Hoover sent a message of condolence from the White House. The sincerity and depth of the grief that swept the union can be seen in the eighteen full pages of the April, 1931 Journal in which Conlon was mourned by high and low alike. No other IAM leader, before or since, ever evoked such an outpouring of admiration and affection. Though largely forgotten today since it was not his destiny to be I.P., Pete Conlon's mark on the IAM was as great as any I.P.'s. He was one of the giants of his time.

The Winters of Discontent

Month after dismal month throughout 1931 and 1932, the Journal reported an orgy of wage reductions throughout the nation. To IAM members the worst was a 10% cut imposed by the railroads in January 1931; one of many actual or attempted wage cuts to come. The Journal vigorously protested wage-cutting in issue after issue. Union representatives tried vainly to persuade industry and government that the worst possible way to revive prosperity was to further squeeze the little purchasing power left among working families.

Union members were almost unanimously agreed that the massive joblessness at the root of the nation's economic misery was due to the extent to which machinists had taken over human jobs. They also agreed upon a cure--a shorter work week. By early 1933 the Journal  was regularly featuring articles, reports and letters from members demanding, extolling and pleading for a six-hour day, five day, thirty-hour week.

With the rest of the labor movement the IAM beat the drums for unemployment insurance and federal emergency relief to help feed, clothe and shelter those made destitute by the depression. Early in 1931, for example, a Journal editorial noted that "millions of men and women are, and have been for months, without means of livelihood due to their inability to obtain work. hundreds of thousands . . . are starving. They have neither food nor money."

In the comfort of the White House, President Hoover glumly dressed for dinner every evening and stubbornly stuck to his philosophy of self-reliance and private charity. At one point the great humanitarian informed a delegation of Congressmen from drought-devastated states that "If the government gives money, individuals will decline to support charitable organizations and a bad precedent will be established."

The Norris-LaGuardia Act

Neither working people nor the labor movement had much to cheer about in the early '30's. Nevertheless in the spring of 1932 Congress passed, and Hoover reluctantly signed, a law restricting the power of federal judges to issue injunctions in labor disputes. Known as the Norris-LaGuardia Act,* it was a turning point in the industrial relations of the nation in that it declared as public policy the right of a worker to "have full freedom of association, self-organization and designation of representatives of his own choosing, to negotiated the terms and conditions of his employment."

Prior to the new law's enactment, a judge could, with the flourish of a pen, sign orders sweeping away a worker's freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and other constitutional rights. Hoover signed the Norris-LaGuardia Act only because both Houses of Congress had passed it by more than the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto and only after his attorney general all but guaranteed the courts would declare it unconstitutional. Having seen how the courts had distorted and misapplied anti-trust legislation twenty ears earlier, the labor movement  half expected the Norris-LaGuardia Act to be struck down. Surprisingly, however, when the question eventually reached the Supreme Court it affirmed this Congressional limitation on judicial jurisdiction. This meant that the labor movement was finally free from yellow dog contracts and other legal harassment--at least in the federal courts.

*George Norris was a progressive Senator from Nebraska who later became known as the father of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Fiorello LaGuardia was a Congressman from New York who later became New York City's greatest and most popular Mayor


Hitting Bottom, The New Deal, 
The NRA and the Long Road Back

 

History


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of Siouxland Lodge 1426 IAMAW
Greg Enright