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History

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

Organizing the Aircraft Industry

The door to industrial unionism was opened for the IAM in 1934 when the AFL favored the IAM over the Carpenters in awarding jurisdiction in the emerging aircraft industry. The Carpenters were a factor because aircraft production in the 1920's required craftsmen with both wood and metalworking skills. The Carpenters established a beachhead in aviation when they chartered a local for mechanics who repaired and overhauled the planes used by movie studios in Hollywood. Workers from the Douglas Aircraft Company, on loan for the filming of an early Howard Hughes production called Hell's Angels, saw for themselves what studio workers had been able to achieve through unions. Before long about 1,000 workers at Douglas signed up with the Carpenter's local.

With each passing day, however, aircraft manufacturing became less of a woodworking and more of a metalworking industry. At its 1934 session held in Los Angeles, the AFL Executive Council decided the time had come to award jurisdiction in this new and highly promising industry. After hearings, the Council ruled that both aircraft mechanics and aircraft factory workers came within the IAM's jurisdiction. The Council called upon the IAM to enlarge and step up its organizing in this field and the Carpenters agreed to step aside.

When the IAM won jurisdiction, Wharton and most of the GVP's still thought that organizing aircraft machinists was the same as organizing railroad machinists. The business representative for Local Lodge 79 in Seattle, I. A. Sandvigan, was more in touch with reality. Known as Sandy, Sandvigan was a solid trade unionist and a mature, experienced organizer. For many years he had been directing his unemployed journeymen to jobs available at Boeing.

Boeing was then a comparatively small enterprise and relations between management and labor were relaxed. Workers in this glamorous new industry considered themselves lucky. Men had always wanted to fly and those who worked on flying machines felt themselves part of a certain mystique. While wages and working conditions were erratic and out of line, the men in the shops generally considered management as "good guys." Unlike most older basic industries such as auto and steel there was no deliberate, mean exploitation, no clear-cut anti-unionism at Boeing. In fact when an organizer from a federal union of aircraft workers in Buffalo came out to set up a spin-off local in Seattle the Boeing management gave him a room in which to meet with employees.

Before Sandvigan could charter a Machinists lodge at Boeing he had to convince the powers at Grand Lodge. Wharton hesitated for months before he finally agreed to ratify industrial unionism in aircraft by giving Sandvigan a go-ahead. The old railroaders on the Executive Council feared that if the IAM asserted an all-inclusive jurisdiction over aircraft workers, it would waive its traditional claim to craft unions of machinists in other industries. Wharton would have preferred to put the unskilled and semi-skilled workers at Boeing into a federal union, allocating the craft skills to their individual unions, with a council of crafts negotiating as a federation of unions. This was the way it was done on the railroads. Fortunately, Sandvigan persuaded Wharton that a different approach was necessary in the aircraft industry.

In September, 1935 the staid and conservative old IAM took one of the most momentous steps in its history by chartering what came to be known as Aeronautical Mechanics Lodge 751. In time it mushroomed into the largest local unit of organized labor in the country. And it gave the IAM its start toward becoming the largest union of aircraft (now aerospace) workers in the world.

In the Spring of 1936 Local 751 notified the company and the recently established National Labor Relations Board that it had signed up 70% of the employees. Boeing recognized the union without an election. In June Sandvigan helped the new and inexperienced committee of Local 751's officers negotiated their first contract. It consisted of two and one-half typewritten pages plus a page and a half of seven basic job classifications. It provided for minimum hourly wages (ranging from 40 to a $1.00) and set an eight-hour day, five-day week, with time-and-a-half for overtime, weekends and seven named holidays. The first Boeing contract not only became the foundation for those that followed at Boeing, but for the predominant position the IAM has since won in the aerospace industry. When the UAW set out to organize aircraft workers on the West Coast, they skipped Seattle because the IAM's foothold was too secure. And when the IAM challenged the UAW at aircraft factories in Southern California the Grand Lodge recruited organizers out of Lodge 751. Wharton asked Sandvigan to go to Southern California for a couple of months to help organize Lockheed and Douglas but he was tied up in Lodge 79 negotiations with canning companies. he recommended two young Lodge 751 members, Tom McNett and E. L. Lynch.* McNett had been the first recording secretary of Lodge 751.

*Although this was supposed to be a temporary assignment, both McNett and Lynch remained on Grand Lodge staff for many years. McNett became president of District 727. In 1969 he was shot to death in a tragic and senseless shooting spree by a member who had been reprimanded by the company. A check of grievance records revealed the union had previously won six straight cases for this member.
When McNett and Lynch arrived in Southern California they were met by a wall of anti-union hostility. Union-busting organizations of big business, like the notorious Merchants and Manufacturers Association, and labor-baiting newspapers, such as the Chandler-owned Los Angeles Times had made Southern California an open shop refuge for generations. In a letter to Sandvigan, McNett wrote that Machinists organizers were being arrested in Santa Monica for passing out leaflets under a city ordinance which made it illegal to distribute reading materials other than daily newspapers or company propaganda.

Initially it appeared that the UAW would become the predominant union in the new aircraft industry. Their organizers came bursting out of Detroit and into the aircraft factories of Southern California like gangbusters. UAW campaigns were powered with enthusiasm and emotion and featured songs, bands, marches and sitdowns. The IAM's methods were more traditional and less flamboyant, but IAM organizers had an ace in the hole, being able to counter the UAW's hoopla with the solid agreements and good relationships that had been developed at Boeing. While radical journals and liberal intellectuals were hailing the CIO as the wave of the future, the IAM organized most of the aircraft plants in Southern California and the rest of the country.

On March 5, 1937, some 40 Lockheed workers, about one-third of the existing work force, gathered at what was then a popular local boxing arena known as Jeffries Barn.* Leadership was originally provided by three rank and filers, Max Stivers, Joe Washburn and Donald Stone. The workers voted to apply for an IAM charter. Washburn is said to have been primarily responsible for setting up that first organizing meeting. Though Stivers signed the first letter of agreement in which Lockheed recognized the IAM on March 8, Washburn was president and Stone business representative when the first contract was negotiated on March 30. The agreement called for a 6 an hour pay raise and brought average rates to slightly more than 50 an hour. A short time later negotiations were reopened and the hourly rate for machinists was raised to 84. The work force at Lockheed remained fairly small until a flood of war orders, beginning with a British Government contract for 200 bombers (the largest single order ever received by a U.S. aircraft company to that time) sent employment soaring. Between 1939 and mid-1943 IAM membership at Lockheed went from 400 to more than 37,000. Negotiated wage rates rose from an average of $1l00 an hour in 1939 to close to $1.90 by the time the war ended

*This property was owned and operated by old-time boxing champion, Jim Jeffries. It was later bought by District 727 as the site for its present headquarters. The arena was dismantled and taken to Knott's Berry Farm where it was reassembled and where it stands today.


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History


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