by Robert G. Rodden

John L. Lewis and the CIO

The Wagner Act presented the American labor movement with the greatest opportunity in history. Wharton and other IAM leaders exhorted staff and members to take full advantage of the law. Nevertheless the IAM's leadership remained fearful of any organizing that was not along strict craft lines. Other AFL craft unions felt the same way. By the summer of 1935 production workers in the rubber factories of Akron, auto plants around Detroit, and steel mills in Pittsburgh wee practically beating down the doors to get into the old AFL unions. They found they were more welcome in theory than in practice. The ghosts of the Knights of Labor, the American Railway Union and the IWW still haunted the leaders of the old line craft unions. In 1933 and 1934, 100,000 steelworkers applied for membership in the AFL-chartered steel union. But the mediocrity at the head of the union , a character aptly called "Grandmother" Tighe, was determined to keep his union to safe manageable numbers. In the auto industry the cautious and conservative AFL leadership actually managed to reduce union membership on the assembly lines.

At this point enter John L. Lewis--one of the most significant and charismatic of all the colorful characters who ever thundered and fought for the cause of organized labor. As president of the United Mine Workers Lewis was idolized by generations of men who dug coal in the bowels of the earth. In peace or war, for almost half a century, mines closed down all over America when John L. issued a strike call.

Lewis could be awesome. With little formal education but the self-taught eloquence of Shakespeare and the Bible, he skewered his opponents with righteous and wrathful rhetoric. He once described Vice President John Nance Garner as "a labor-baiting, poker-playing, whiskey-drinking, evil old man." He also dubbed AFL President William Green as "Sitting Bill", adding "I have done a lot of exploring of his mind and I give you my work there is nothing there." 

In the heat of a parley with top management during the rash of assembly line sitdowns in the auto industry, Lewis gave voice to decades of suppressed working class hostility when he pulled himself to the full height of his impressive bulk and told a contemptuously scornful company official, "I am 99% of a mind to come around the table right now and wipe that damn sneer off your face."

By the time the AFL Convention met in 1935 Lewis was convinced that the AFL hierarchy was standing still, "Its face to the past." As a member of the Committee on Organizing he brought in a minority report urging an all-out campaign to organize America's mass production industries from top to bottom, by industry rather than by craft. He argued that this could be done with the Wagner Act but he could not dent minds that had been molded and set in the cement of Gompers' philosophy of business unionism. The debate became heated, so heated, in fact, Lewis actually punched Carpenter's President William Hutcheson in the nose.

Wharton was prominent among those who opposed Lewis' minority report. Appalled by the prospect of unions with what he called "unrestricted charters to organize workers without recognizing the jurisdictional claims of established internationals," Wharton defended the craft concept as realistic and dismissed industrial unionism as a pipe dream.

Voicing his doubt that workers in mass production industries really wanted to be organized, Wharton asked,

Who are the people on the outside who want to come in? Haven't they had the same opportunity to join . . . that we had? Don't you think we had to risk our lives in organizing . . . and conducting strikes? If you ask me I think it is a lack of will to organize, a willingness to accept the gains of organized workers without fairly contributing . . . to the struggle.
Recalling the IAM's unhappy experience with industrial unionism during the First World War, he added:
My organization increased its membership from about 100,000 to 335,000. We had several million dollars in the treasury when the War was settled. What went with it? What went with the members? Was there any fault with the organization, when we were trying to do the very best we could to protect the interests of those people? We paid out every dollar we had to protect them when wages were being reduced and hours were lengthened. We assessed ourselves. We spent all the money we had and we borrowed money to protect the interests of those workers, and they left the organization. Why?
Wharton, the old railroader, pointed with pride to craft unionism on the railroads saying,
The railroad industry . . . is scattered throughout the country, with hundreds of thousands of people employed in it, being represented . . . by twenty-one recognized railroad labor organizations. . . . It is the only industry that has gone through the six years of this industrial depression with its membership practically intact, maintaining all of its conditions o employment, maintaining its standards of wages and retaining its membership.
Wharton was apparently so carried away that the conveniently forgot the industry-wide wage cuts imposed in 1931, the universal layoffs and steep declines in union membership.

Having spent his life dealing with the problems of railroad machinists Wharton rarely tried to see beyond the roundhouses where he learned his craft. While he headed a union that now included a wide range of industries and occupations, Wharton's monthly "President's Page" in the Journal, seldom strayed from the concerns of skilled railroad journeymen. Only rarely did he address himself to matters of interest to the tens of thousands of auto mechanics, construction and erection machinists or tool-and-die makers in job shops who were a significant part of his union. To the end he remained suspicious of efforts to recruit members who had neither training, nor skills, nor any sense of pride in being machinists.

For a brief moment the IAM had a chance, never to return, to become a dominant in America's metalworking industries, as is I. G. Metall in West Germany.* The moment passed because Wharton failed to see the extent to which the Wagner Act shifted the balance of power in industrial relations. As Wharton faced the past, John L. Lewis and the Committee (later Congress) of Industrial Organizations moved into the future, organizing millions of eager workers in auto, steel, aluminum, electrical manufacturing, rubber, glass, oil, chemical, textile, clothing, communications and other industrial occupations.

*The German union known as I. G. Metall is an all-inclusive umbrella organization of machinists and metalworkers in steel, electrical, auto and other metal-working industries
From the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935 to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, membership in America's unions exploded from 3.7 million to 10.4 million. Although the initiative started with the CIO, AFL unions soon moved with the times. Old guard craft unions, forced to protect traditional jurisdictions, responded to demands for union representation. The IAM may have been slow in recognizing and exploiting the possibilities opened by the Wagner Act, but once it began to move, no union organized more effectively. Between the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act and the onset of World War II, the Machinists Union registered a net gain of 277,000 members.

The IAM vs. the CIO

When CIO organizers began fanning out across the country in early 1936, the Journal fairly crackled with indignation. Articles and editorials warned against industrial unionism and condemned the CIO as "dual unionism." In a fervent defense of craft unionism, GVP Harvey Brown reminded IAM members that a skilled machinist was a skilled machinist whether employed in "a chemical plant, a rubber products factory, a washing machine factory, a tobacco factory or a textile mill, a newspaper or a brewery." He warned that industrial unionism would force skilled machinists to join different unions every time they changed jobs. Worse, wages and working conditions of skilled machinists would be determined by unskilled and semi-skilled laborers who would always be the majority.

 Organizing the Aircraft Industry


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of Siouxland Lodge 1426 IAMAW
Greg Enright