by Robert G. Rodden

Organizing the Office Equipment Industry

In the late spring of 1934, the IAM began a campaign to organize two major producers of office equipment, Underwood and Remington Rand. Because most Machinist lodges were still reluctant to accept unskilled members, GVP Harvey Brown arranged to have the unskilled workers in the various office equipment plants organized into "federal unions" directly affiliated with the AFL. He later expressed satisfaction on being able to avoid industrial unionism (the dreaded "one big union") by setting up metal trades councils of the Molders, the Metal Polishers, the Machinists and federal unions.

Underwood came to terms without a strike, but the president of Remington Rand, James Rand, Jr., stubbornly refused to sign any document containing the word "union." On May 8, 1934, 6,500 workers walked out of Remington Rand plants in several states. After four weeks the company tried to reopen with a back-to-work movement. It fell flat on its face when fewer than 200 employees went through the picket lines at Remington Rand factories in four states. In Syracuse the company came closest to a breakthrough when a hundred or so workers, mostly teenage females, entered the plant the first day. But no one else followed and by the third day only thirty-five were left in the shop. Faced with a solid front at all locations, Rand finally consented to sit down and bargain. Victory was sealed on June 18th with an agreement providing wage increases ranging from 8% to 16%, plus shop committees to handle employee grievances. The celebrations that broke out that night in towns and cities of the Mohawk Valley were said to compare with those on Armistice Day in World War I. Unfortunately the rejoicing was premature. The Journal later reported that James Rand treated his agreement with his workers as a "mere scrap of paper." Within two years the IAM would again be forced to meet this company head on in one of the classic labor-management confrontations of all time.

The Grand Lodge Research Department

During the New Deal union representatives were increasingly needed to sit on the advisory boards o federal agencies. Unions were being asked to provide the information needed in drafting NRA industry codes. At first Wharton brought GLR's in from the field for such duties.

But early in 1934, as the issues and necessary data became more numerous and complex, the Executive Council haired AFL statistician David Kaplan to set up a Research Department at Grand Lodge. As a professional, trained in economics at the University of Wisconsin, Kaplan laid the foundation for the full service Research Department that today provides IAM representatives in the field with a broad range of negotiating and organizing data.

Government FOR the People

Even with the protection of the Norris-LaGuardia Act and NRA codes, most  working men and women remained vulnerable to employer exploitation. A study by a national religious committee reported in early 1935 that workers seeking to organize and deal collectively with employers

. . . are limited on every hand by the common law doctrine of conspiracy. Picketing, boycotts and strikes are subject to limitations. In contrast, no limitations are placed on the power of employers to lock out their employees or to discharge them. Laws prohibiting employers from blacklisting are ineffective. "Yellow dog" contracts . . . requiring employees to refrain from joining unions are legal in most states.
Congress passed and Roosevelt gladly signed a retirement act for railroaders but the great majority of Americans did not have, indeed did not even dream of, old age pensions, unemployment insurance, minimum wages or federal ban on child labor.

In May 1935, the Supreme Court dropped a judicial bomb on America's working people. The justices held both the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Railroad Retirement Act unconstitutional. Most of the Supreme Court justices, known as the "Nine Old Men," were holdovers from the Hoover, Coolidge and Harding Administrations and reflected the ultra-conservative biases of those Presidents.

In surveying the wreckage inflicted by these decisions, the Journal bitterly commented "A foreign foe could scarcely have wrought greater havoc on a disillusioned and suffering people . . . The Supreme Court can . . . now sit serenely. It is no concern of these elderly gentlemen what happens to the nation."

But Congress was concerned and reacted quickly. Within two months it passed the National Labor Relations Act (known popularly as the Wagner Act), the "Magna Carta" for which unionists had vainly dreamed for generations. It created a permanent National Labor Relation Board (NLRB) to promote equality of bargaining power between employers and employees. The new law validated collective bargaining as national policy and defined specific employer actions as unfair labor practices. These included interference and coercion toward employees seeking to organize, discrimination against union workers, financial support for a company union, firing workers for filing charges or testifying under the Act, and refusal to bargain collectively. The NLRB was given power to issue "cease and desist" orders against such practices.

GVP Harvey Brown had been transferred to Grand Lodge some months earlier to take charge of organizing activities. In a report to the membership the described the Wagner Act as a "signal for the opening gun of a membership campaign that will surpass any . . . throughout the history of our organization." The Executive Council hastened to get dispensations for local lodges to reduce the minimum initiation fee from $5.00 to $3.00 in organizing campaigns. In a July, 1935 referendum the members approved such a dispensation by a vote of more than two to one, paving the way for an all-out, union-wide drive to rebuild the union.

Hysteria in High Places

If the Wagner Act set off rejoicing in union halls it created hysteria in corporate board rooms. An editorial in Business Week, the mouthpiece of big business, was captioned "No Obedience" and openly advised employers not to obey the law. According to this publication, the National Labor Relations Act may have been passed by Congress but could be ignored because "nothing is law that is unconstitutional." The editors confidently predicted, "This is what the Supreme Court will ultimately decide about the Wagner Act."

This self-serving conclusion was promptly ratified by an "impartial panel" of fifty-eight of the nation's leading corporation lawyers meeting behind closed doors at one of Washington's swankiest hotels. When they emerged these corporate mouthpieces imperiously announced that the NLRA was "plainly unconstitutional."

The NAM was typically in character. Together with the American Liberty League* it launched a nationwide campaign to convince workers that the law was meaningless. NAM flacks planted canned editorials in friendly newspapers (and most were) declaring the Wagner Act unconstitutional.

*This was a 1930's version of the John Birch Society set up exclusively for millionaires--a kind of Ku Klux Klan for the rich.
As seen by big business and its conservative press Roosevelt further assaulted traditional values when he signed legislation setting up a Social Security system which included unemployment insurance and a Railroad Retirement Act rewritten to take care of the Supreme Court's constitutional objections. Despite the wrath of business and industry this New Deal legislation and other statutes establishing minimum wage, maximum hour and child labor standards were eventually found to be constitutional.


John L. Lewis and the CIO,
 The IAM vs. the CIO


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