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History

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

LaFollette Committee Hearings

Lawless disregard of the rights of workers was not confined to the top management at Remington Rand. During the late 1930's Senator Robert Lafollette, "Young Bob," son of the old Progressive from Wisconsin, headed a Senate Committee to look into labor-management relations. Its hearings produced shocking exposure of widespread corporate contempt for the legal and constitutional rights of America's working men and women.

LaFollette found evidence that 2,500 corporations, including many of America's blue chip companies, were spending millions to maintain a national network of thousands of labor spies. Stool pigeons and provocateurs wee paid to report on internal union affairs, stir up dissension among union members and generally block labor organization. When the committee questioned a vice president of Chrysler about such clearly illegal practices, he said "We must do it to obtain the information we need in dealing with our employees."

GST Davison testified before the Lafollette Committee several times. In testimony describing the IAM's thirty-five year war with the National Metal Trades Association, he told of a certain Sam Brady who had been hired by the notorious Pinkerton Agency to infiltrate the IAM. According to Davison, Brady achieved

positions of importance and trust in the IAM, holding office in different local unions. He used his position to cause union men to be discharged and to have them blacklisted. He slandered union officials and attempted to disrupt the organization by attacking the character and integrity of the leadership with forged documents. On several occasions he was expelled, only to reappear under different names in different places to resume his disruptive tactics.
"There are thousands of his kind," Davison added. The NMTA frequently planted spies in the union to incite violence for which the union could be blamed. The committee uncovered such a case at a Black & Decker appliance pant employing 450 IAM members in Kent, Ohio. In the Spring of 1936 the company announced that it would not renegotiate its contract with the local IAM lodge. The entire plant walked out. One of the most militant and active members, G. W. Bookhamer, was an NMTA plant. When the walkout began, Bookhamer tried to get others to dynamite the factory and block delivery of the mail, which would have been a federal crime. With none responding to these suggestions the company got an injunction limiting the number of pickets to three. Meanwhile the NMTA requisitioned a couple of thousands of dollars worth of long-range gas guns and grenades. The NMTA also sent guards to protect the plant. When the guards arrived three pickets including one woman, were at the gate. Without warning these hired thugs opened fire with tear gas and shot guns. Within minutes some 350 union members came running, many carrying hunting rifles.

The strikebreakers took shelter in the pant and gunfire was exchanged for most of the morning. Finally the police arranged for the sheriff to enter the plant, disarm the strikebreakers and place them under arrest. Inside, the sheriff found a sizable arsenal of guns and ammunition plus enough food to last a week. When these so-called "guards" were booked, forty-three were found to have long criminal records. The unprovoked attack on unarmed workers so shocked the community the NMTA's violence boomeranged. Within two weeks the company signed a union contract.

The LaFollette Committee found that some companies literally kept their employees in their gun sights. When Richard Mellon, the billionaire from Pittsburgh, was asked why his security guards kept machine guns trained on workers at one of his mines, he airily explained "You cannot run the mines without them." LaFollette's probe into company conduct during a steel strike in 1937 disclosed that the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company had an arsenal of eight machine guns, 369 rifles, 190 shot guns, 450 revolvers, almost 10,000 rounds of ammunition, 109 gas guns and 3,000 canisters of gas. Republic Steel was found to be the largest purchaser of tear gas in the United States--not excepting state and local police departments.

As a result of the LaFollette Committee's findings, the NMTA was forced to stop furnishing spies, "guards" and other strike-breaking services to union-busting employers. With the enactment of the Wagner Act. which gave workers a clear right to organize and bargain collectively, it finally began to accept unionized companies into membership.

Sit Down! Sit Down!

Because of the kind of employer tactics uncovered by the LaFollette Committee workers sometimes turned to less traditional and more desperate methods to get to the bargaining table.

Instead of marching on picket lines, where the police could bust heads, some 500,000 sat down at their machines in the winter of 1936-37--where use of force would threaten the employer's property.

These sit-down strikes, in everything from dime stores to rubber factories and auto plants, set off a wave of frenzy among newspaper editors and apoplexy in executive suites. But working people who had been sat upon by employers all their lives now sang a different tune:

When they tie the can to a union man,
Sit down! Sit down!
When they give him the sack, they'll take him back,
Sit down! Sit down!
When the speed-up comes, just twiddle your thumbs,
Sit down! Sit down!
When the boss won't talk, don't take a walk,
Sit down! Sit down!
Sit-downs alienated public opinion but were an understandable response to industry's widespread refusal to obey NLRB cease and desist orders. Wharton abhorred the tactic not only because it laid the union open to legal reprisals but, more significantly, because it gave small groups of hotheads or dissidents a way to weaken internal discipline and the authority of elected leaders. As will be seen he strictly forbid IAM representatives to lead or take part in such activities. By the time the courts outlawed this tactic as trespass on private property, most of the big open shop, non-union corporations had been forced to negotiate with unions chosen by their workers.

The Memorial Day Massacre

One notable holdout was the Republic Steel Company. It was headed by Tom Girdler, the corporate cut-throat who once threatened to close his plants and retire to his apple orchards rather than deal with a union.

On Memorial Day, 1937 several thousand striking workers, many with their wives and children, gathered on an empty stretch of land near Girdler's mill in South Chicago. As they marched in ragged formation across the fields while singing "Solidarity Forever," a police captain bellowed "You dirty sons-of-bitches, that is as far as you go." The crowd slowed but a few people continued to edge toward the factory. Some of the police attacked a group of women, purposely digging clubs into their breasts. When one of the workers shouted "We've got our rights" the police yelled "You Red bastards got not rights." Suddenly and without provocation or warning (as newsreels later showed) the police exploded into a riot of mayhem and murder. Men, women, and children alike were targets of police brutality. Amid screams, vomiting and blood, the police chased retreating workers, clubbing all within reach with their night sticks and gun butts. Pistol shots rang out as frightened families fled in panic. Ten unarmed and defenseless workers were killed and ninety were wounded.

The following day the Chicago Tribune denounced the victims as a mob "lusting for blood" and Hollywood moguls suppressed ghastly newsreels filmed at the scene. Tom Girdler snarled "There can be no pity. The police were performing a hazardous duty. what were women doing there?"

The strike was broken and the defeated workers crept back to the conditions they had protested. Despite attempts to bury the evidence the films were shown at a dramatic session of the LaFollette Committee. Girdler's tactics created a backlash of public revulsion. The NLRB eventually compelled Girdler to bargain collectively with the union. He did not retire to tend his apple trees.

 


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