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History

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

Hitting Bottom

With membership slumping throughout 1932 the IAM, institutionally at least, seemed to take little notice of the Presidential campaign that year. Wharton's monthly articles in the Journal continued to echo his philosophy of business unionism. He was mostly concerned with internal union problems, especially those of the railroaders. At no time did he indicate awareness of an election that was to revolutionize the role of government in American life.

Following the Republican Convention in Chicago, GVP Robert Fechner expressed what must have been a general sense of disgust in the labor movement, noting, "The platform was strangely silent on the vital problems raised by the Depression. The plank on Labor was . . . meaningless . . . nothing to encourage hope that unemployment would be adequately dealt with or that the unemployed would be protected."

Later, after the Democrats had nominated Franklin Delano Roosevelt, GVP Harvey Brown cautiously ventured an opinion that

We can be consistent non-partisans in politics and still contend that as between the two recent political conventions the Demmy [sic] platform contains the most worthwhile promises. In my travels I find that not Franklin D. Roosevelt the Democrat, but Franklin D. Roosevelt the Progressive, is a big favorite . . . and if [he attracts] the majority of the votes I trust that candidates who share his views will receive like support.
GVP Fred Laudermann contemptuously dismissed the campaign as a "sham battle" snorting that it was being "staged by the two major political parties in an effort to control the votes of those who toil."

In November, 1932 Roosevelt was elected by more than seven million votes. The American people, seeking fresh answers to mass misery, also swept a Democratic Congress into power. When Roosevelt took the oath of office the country was paralyzed with fear. Responding and seeking to restore hope the new President assured the nation in his inaugural address that "We have nothing to fear but fear itself . . . our greatest primary task is to put the people back to work."

Only a little more than a month earlier Adolph Hitler throttled democracy in Germany and was preparing the foundation for the Second World War. In Russia Josef Stalin was gathering the last vestiges of total power into his own hands. The Red Revolution, born in the mud, blood and misery of the First World War, was being readied for export to the waiting faithful in other lands.

In May, 1933, before Roosevelt's New Deal had time to take effect, IAM membership scraped bottom at 55,767--with 23,204 on unemployment stamps. This was soon after the Mt. Vernon Savings Bank--which the Machinists so proudly launched thirteen years earlier as America's first labor bank--went belly up. Since most of the union's assets were tied up in the bank, the Grand Lodge scrambled to survive on a hand-to-mouth, month-to-month existence.

During the four day "Bank Holiday" which Roosevelt declared immediately upon taking office the IAM, unable to deposit or cash per capita checks from the local lodges, virtually closed down. The Executive Council wired all field staff not already on furlough, "Entire staff discontinued today. Return home. Explanation later." For several days Davison managed to keep the Grand Lodge afloat by cashing U.S. postal money orders which some lodges still used to remit monthly per capita payments.

In addition to personnel cutbacks and economies made earlier as a result of the stock market crash (such as reducing the Journal from sixty-four to forty-eight and eventually forty pages) the Executive Council was forced to cut costs to the bone, reducing their own salaries 10%, setting up a system of rotating furloughs for GLR's and Grand Lodge auditors in the field and reducing Grand Lodge contributions to business agencies. Stenographers and other employees at the Washington headquarters were laid off for varying numbers of weeks (depending upon length of service).

Throughout this period Lodge 174, with members employed at the Washington Navy Yard in the Nation's Capital, was by far the largest and most solvent lodge in the IAM. In April, 1932, Lodge 174 alone accounted for nearly 6% of the total per capita received from the IAM's 533 lodges. Members at the Navy Yard were among the relatively few skilled journeymen to be steadily employed all through the Depression. Decades later, old timers at 174 meetings enjoyed reminding visiting GLR's and other dignitaries from Grand Lodge that "If it hadn't been for us there wouldn't be no Grand Lodge."

The New Deal

As the Roosevelt Administration began its legendary "First One Hundred Days" America seethed with class violence and hatred. In the Midwest grim-faced farmers poured milk on the highways and gathered, with shot guns unslung, to stop sheriffs from carrying out foreclosure sales. In the cities workers not only staged hunger marches, but strikes and picket lines began to multiply once more. In 1932 fewer than 250,000 workers dared to strike despite the epidemic of wage cuts that swept the nation. A year later, with yellow dog contracts and injunctions banned by the Norris-LaGuardia Act, more than 800,000 working men and women hit the bricks to protest intolerable wages and working conditions.

One of the new President's first initiatives was the national Industrial Recovery Act. Commonly known as the NRA, this was an attempt to stimulate the economy by drafting codes of fair competition for every major industry. The NRA codes sought to stabilize prices and end wage cutting. Each code, theoretically at least, guaranteed the right of collective bargaining while the law itself encouraged "mutual agreements" between employers and employees as to "maximum hours of labor, minimum rates of pay and other conditions of employment." In approving the National Industrial Recover Act. President Roosevelt said, "The law I have just signed was passed to put people back to work--to let them buy more of the products of farms and factories and start our business at a living rate again." On June 25, 1933, just five days after the NRA went into effect, Wharton issued an official circular informing the membership that under this new law "Workers o the United States, no matter where employed, now have the unqualified right to organize without fear of losing their jobs, or denial of employment." A follow-up official circular a month or so later urged all local lodge officers who had not already done so to initiate organizing campaigns without delay. The Supreme Court eventually stuck down the NRA, together with other New Deal legislation. By that time, however, the labor movement had picked itself off the floor and was back in the middle of the fight for economic justice.

The New Deal moved rapidly and in many ways to reduce the suffering the Depression inflicted. By May, Roosevelt's right-hand man, Harry Hopkins, sitting at a rickety desk amidst empty packing cases in the hallway of a government building, made emergency grants to "feed the hungry and house the homeless" from a $500 million appropriation just voted by Congress. A wide range of emergency home relief and work programs were hurriedly begun. These included the Public Works Administration (WPA) which put millions of Americans into useful jobs over the next several years. Though sneered at and ridiculed by the largely anti-New Deal press as "leaf-raking boondoggles" these programs put people to work building post offices, bridges, jails, airports, sewers, water pumping stations, recreational areas, power plants, roads, clinics, playgrounds and countless other public facilities, many of which are still serving America.

One of the most successful and widely acclaimed New Deal programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps--headed from the beginning by IAM GVP Robert Fechner. Under his leadership the CCC, as it was known, took 2.5 million youths, black and white, into the countryside to work on soil conservation, flood control and reforestation projects. By the time the CCC was disbanded, at the onset of World War II, Fechner's corpsmen had planted a shelterbelt of 200 million trees from Texas to the Canadian border.

With programs such as these putting people to work--and putting spending money in their pockets--private industry began to perk up. Beginning in June, new organizing finally reversed the three-year decline that almost put the union down for the count. By the end of the year the Grand Lodge chartered 116 new lodges and added some 20,000 names to the membership rolls. Responding to complaints about service Davison Explained that his office was "swamped" by applications for membership. From this point on the IAM never looked back.

The NRA and the Long Road Back

When Roosevelt took office industrialists and businessmen desperately looked to him to save the capitalist system from total collapse. But if there was a honeymoon for the new administration, it was one of the briefest in history. Within months business leaders were noisily protesting NRA codes requiring them to bargain collectively. Tom Girdler, president of Republic Steel, flatly stated that he would close his mills and retire to tend the apple trees on his farm rather than meet with union representatives. Eugene G. Grace, president of Bethlehem Steel, upon being awarded the Iron and Steel Institute's "Gary Award"* intoned his belief in company unions, declaring, "They do not provide for outside organizations foreign to our industry to dictate to men and management as to what constitutes proper relationships between them."

*Named for the unspeakable Elbert Gary, chiefly remembered today for his brutality in crushing 300,000 steelworkers striking against the twelve-hour day in 1919.
At first organized labor was grateful to get even a small tow in the door. But working people soon realized that NRA head General Hugh S. Johnson was administering it for the benefit of big business. Such major industries as steel, rubber, petroleum and chemical were allowed to continue sponsoring company unions--effectively blocking real collective bargaining.

The code governing automotive repair was delayed for almost a year while the IAM tried to make NRA officials understand that auto mechanics should not be included in a general industry code covering cleaners, bootblacks, pressers and other service occupations. The IAM, which chartered its first automotive lodge, 442 in New York City, in 1912, organized auto mechanics where possible but with limited success until the establishment of an NRA code for the auto repair industry. Despite unrelenting opposition by the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) mechanics flocked to the IAM banner in Akron, Cleveland, Charleston, Chicago, Cedar Rapids, St. Louis, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, San Francisco and many other cities.

Lodge 701 reported that dealers in Chicago signed an NRA pledge to bargain collectively and immediately violated it by sponsoring and financing company unions. Spurred by the NADA Chicago area dealers fought grimly to keep the IAM out. They plastered their shops with anti-IAM propaganda and placards. Violations of the NRA Code were so blatant a federal judge in Chicago actually issued an injunction against the employers--an event so unprecedented Wharton dryly commented it was like a man biting a dog.

In Cleveland, automotive Lodge 1363, chartered in 1919, was down to about fifty members in early 1934. Less than a year later membership had surged to almost a thousand. The business representative reported that committees of volunteers were organizing throughout the area. But getting mechanics signed up was seldom easy. After an organizing meeting in Cedar Rapids one evening GVP Nickerson reported that sixty-seven mechanics asked for membership applications. By daybreak all but a handful were scared off by employer threats and pressure.

When a strike for union recognition in the Twin Cities closed down most garages, a so-called Citizens Alliance imported professional thugs to attack and intimidated pickets. As described in the Journal, "A couple of the garages made a pretense of operating their shops, with two or three scabs and an army of uniformed police, machine guns and tear gas bombs."

The Citizens Alliance attempted to frame the local business representative, Herman Husman, who was in the process of getting his citizenship papers. A fink was paid to lure Husman to a meeting at which young mechanics allegedly wanted to learn more about the union. The meeting was a trap, designed to get Husman to make pro-Communist statements. Later when the fink testified that Husman peddled communist propaganda at the meeting, cross-examination revealed him to be a bribe-taking perjurer. Husman got his final papers and garage owners in both Minneapolis and St. Paul came to terms with the IAM. According to the Journal these first contracts provided for union recognition together with wage increases for "75% of the men in the trade."

In San Francisco business agent (and later GVP) George Castleman of Local Lodge 1305 launched a comprehensive organizing drive in January 1934. Starting with approximately 300 members he put together a volunteer organizing committee that covered every auto shop and personally contacted every mechanic in the city. By the end of the year Local Lodge 1305 had almost 1,000 members with more signing up every day. A strike-settling agreement with the dealers association in November 1935 covered 1,700 mechanics and apprentices. The contract provided for an eight hour day, forty-hour week, 90 cents an hour minimum and a $25 a week guarantee. Mechanics paid by the month were guaranteed $140. The contract also provided time-and-a-half for overtime, eight paid holidays and a grievance procedure. Flat rates and piecework were abolished.

 


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