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History

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

Negotiations and a New Generation

Despite organizational battles with the CIO, the work of the IAM went on in hundreds of local lodges. Throughout the nation scores of rising young business representatives and Grand Lodge representatives were negotiating day-to-day improvements in wages and working conditions. Toward the end of the decade reports coming to the Journal began to bear the names of those who would soon begin moving into positions of top leadership in the union.

From Jersey City, GLR Sam Newman reported a 15 an hour wage increase plus improvements in hours and overtime provisions at Air Reduction Company. From Youngstown, GLR Eric Peterson sent word that a union shop had been achieved and a 16 an hour wage increase won for machinists employed by the Municipal Railroad.

In St. Louis, Business Representative Elmer Walker negotiated an hourly minimum of 85 for machinists and 90 for tool and die makers at Peerless Enameling and Stamping Company.

In Albany, New York, GLR Fred Coonley signed a union shop agreement with the Ready Mix Corporation which provided 15 an hour raises, thus bringing the minimum for auto mechanics to 85 and further providing one week vacation and six paid holidays.

Up in Wisconsin, GLR Al Hayes checked in with a wide range of contract improvements in negotiations with employers in Wisconsin Rapids and La Crosse, while in Watertown, Business Representative Gil Brunner negotiated a union shop agreement with the Otto Biefeld Company that brought a forty-two hour week with time-and-a-half for Saturday afternoon, Sundays and holidays.

In Houston, GLR Earl Melton signed agreements with twenty garages setting a journeymen rate of 90 an hour.

In Spokane, Business Representative Joe McBreen helped to organize the first state machinists council. The place Kelso, Washington. The date August 7, 1937.

In Illinois, GLR Joe Ramsey reported settling a three-week strike at National Sewing Machine Company with raises ranging from 20% to 50% for "employees in the lower brackets."

Out in Sam Pedro, California, Business Representative Roy Brown negotiated a union shop with a $1.00 an hour minimum for journeymen at the Santa Catalina Island Company.

From Tampa, GLR Jesse McGlon reported a union shop agreement with Tampa shipbuilding and Engineering Company that included an 18 an hour wage increase and brought journeymen up to 88 an hour.

In Carnegie, Pennsylvania, Grand Lodge Representative P. L. Siemiller reported an agreement with the Pittsburgh and West Virginia Railroad raising hourly rates by amounts up to 14, providing a minimum of 82 an hour for journeymen machinists.

Wharton's Last Stand

In the late 1930's--and for many years to come--shop workers on the railroads remained among the lowest paid skilled craftsmen in the nation. Adding insult to injury, the carriers, in March, 1938 seized upon the severe recession of 1937 as an excuse to propose a 15% across-the-board wage cut for all railroad employees.

Wharton was visibly beginning to fail physically. Never robust, he seemed to become a little more stooped and drained each day. When management launched this frontal attack on his beloved railroaders, he was already up to his neck in a fight with the Carpenters' Union. For years the Carpenters' Union had refused to honor long-standing AFL resolutions and directives giving the IAM clear jurisdiction over the erection and repair of machinery wherever machinery was used. This struggle was beginning to heat up when the carriers made their demand for a 15% wage reduction. All that summer, in the broiling heat and humidity of a Washington summer (before air conditioning) the failing IAM chief stretched his energies to the limit. Meeting with other railroad union representatives he drafted a carefully constructed union rebuttal to the carrier's proposal. An Emergency Board appointed by President Roosevelt to head off a industry-wide strike eventually reported favorably for the workers and recommended that the carriers "withdraw and cancel the notices which put [wage] reductions into operation." Once Wharton felt the wages of the railroaders were safe, he collapsed with fatigue. He took a leave of absence and went to Arizona with his wife, who had been his secretary at Grand Lodge, to rest and recover his health. He never returned. The following year the resigned and five years later, in 1944, died at the age of 71.

Wharton can be summed up by saying that what he may have lacked in charisma he made up in character. He gave the IAM strong leadership when it was needed. In 1926 he took over a union fractured by feuds and factions. Twelve years later, when he left for Arizona, the IAM was probably more cohesive than at any time since it was a small exclusive fraternity of skilled craftsmen in Atlanta. Moreover, Wharton brought the IAM through the worst depression America's working people ever suffered. At times neither he nor Davison knew where money for the next payroll was coming from. In manner Wharton may have kept others at a distance with stiff formality. On some issues, such as organizing industrial workers, he was slow to admit that the Wagner Act had made his craft outlook obsolete. But he bristled with integrity. He never doubted himself. He left the IAM bigger, stronger and much more united than he found it.

Harvey Brown--The Old Fashioned Machinists

Wharton's successor, Harvey Brown, had served as Resident GVP at Grand Lodge for a number of years. This position had become (and remains even today) the IP's chief of staff. It was no surprise, then, that the Executive Council chose Brown as acting International President. This choice was confirmed a few months later by a margin of almost four to one in a vote of the membership. As noted Harvey Brown had to search for someone to endorse his application for IAM membership some thirty-five years earlier. After completing his apprenticeship at Bethlehem Steel he boomed around the country, belonging to no fewer than fourteen different lodges in five years. In 1910, at the age of twenty-six, Brown was elected business representative by members of a lodge in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. A year later he was a delegate and chairman of the Officers' Report Committee at the 1911 Grand Lodge Convention in Davenport. In 1915 Johnston appointed him to the Grand Lodge staff. A year later members of a newly organized district lodge in Newark, New Jersey, petitioned Johnston to let Brown resign to become their business representative. For the next few years he held various union positions including president of the Essex County Trades Council and IAM delegate to AFL Conventions. He was elected GVP in 1921 and Wharton brought him to headquarters as resident GVP in 1934.

An old line journeyman machinist, Harvey Brown, like Wharton, had little use for unskilled and semi-skilled workers. It will be recalled that in the early organizing stages at Remington Rand he carefully segregated production workers into their own federal union. Gordon Cole, who was to serve as editor of The Machinist newspaper for more than thirty years, has described Harvey Brown as the most honest--and stubborn--man he ever met. Having sipped generously of the juice of the grape in his youth, Brown was a sternly strait-laced teetotaler by the time Wharton brought him to Grand Lodge. A plain, blunt, old-fashioned machinist, unencumbered by finesse, tact or the other arts of diplomacy, Brown usually reacted like an enraged bull when opposed. To those who bored or irritated him he displayed the charm and grace of an untipped waiter. During his ten years as IP, Brown was constantly in conflict with other unions and, often, his own membership. Incapable of compromise Brown rubbed raw jurisdictional sores Wharton was trying to heal before his health failed. It was hardly surprising that with Brown at the helm the IAM's quarrel with the Carpenters became an open breach with the entire labor movement.

On the Eve of War

When Hitler's legions invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, IAM membership was 164,597. As America tooled up to become the "Arsenal of Democracy" new membership rose from a relative trickle to a roaring cataract--from monthly gains measured by the hundreds in the late 1930's to increases gauged by the thousands and even tens of thousands by the early and mid 1940's.

The massive flood of new workers into war industries, and especially the aircraft plants, sucked members of every political stripe into IAM lodge halls. There were progressives, socialists, populists, Wobblies and other old-time radicals. But there were also Communists subservient to the Party line as laid down by Moscow. Hitler had signed a mutual non-aggression pact with Stalin before he sent this panzer divisions smashing across the plains of Poland. And until the turned his savagery on the Soviet motherland in June, 1941, the official Party line was isolationist.* Communists in the U.S. vigorously opposed the war and tried to subvert U.S. production intended for Hitler's enemies. In keeping with Moscow's directives Communists in the labor movement actively fomented strikes, exploiting real and imagined grievances. The party liners were especially active in aircraft plants.

*In France the Communist Party played a major role in the French defeat by a combination of psychological warfare and outright sabotage in munitions factories.
The IAM was better equipped than many unions to deal with internal subversion. Communists were barred from membership after the early 1920's. The Grand Lodge could thus move swiftly against any local or district lodge to investigate suspected Communist activity. The IAM trial procedure was effective in ridding local lodges of internal subversion.

The IAM's experience at the huge, sprawling and fast-spreading Boeing plants in Seattle is a good example of the problem and how the Machinists handled it. As the war in Europe heated up Boeing began recruiting heavily. Workers streamed into Seattle from all across the country, many from the older industrial centers with memories of the big organizing drives and sitdown strikes in mass production industries still fresh in their minds. A few were Communists who openly supported Party objectives. But the Party also sent undercover organizers with instructions to get control of the union at Boeing.

In addition, Boeing had a Nazi problem. After the First World War the company imported a cadre of German engineers trained at Fokker. Many retained pro-German sympathies and some belonged to the pro-Nazi German-American Bund. During the early stages of the war Reds and Nazis were untied in opposing American help for the beleaguered Allies.

The Nazis were a recognizable threat to national security and were eventually taken care of by the FBI, but the Communist menace was more indirect and subtle. According to surviving records and the memories of old-time 751 members the Communist presence became unmistakable in every lodge activity--at membership meetings, in rank-and-file briefing sessions, in the editing of the lodge paper, even the lady's auxiliary. Communist issues and tactics turned lodge meetings into chaos and friends into enemies.

Lodge 751 had become so large even relatively small turnouts, in terms of percentages, produced sizable crowds. Using classic Communist tactics party members prolonged meetings with endless debates, motions, amendments and amendments to amendments. They diverted support for U.S. aid to the allies by their mastery of parliamentary procedure. They could usually camouflage their interest in proposals consistent with party objectives. But if their objectives were suspected they would throw up a smokescreen of delaying tactics until most of the rank-and-file wearied and went home. When few except committed Party members remained, they introduced and carried motions that furthered Communist objectives.

Since Boeing was operating day and night shifts, lodge meetings were divided into day and night sessions. This meant no motion could be passed finally without the approval of both. While this gave the non-Communist faction a check on Communist maneuvering, it also permitted the Communists to tie up lodge business in parliamentary knots. To maintain legitimate union functions the anti-Communists adopted Communist methods. They met secretly to plan strategy, contacted loyal unionists individually to get them out to meetings and persuaded them to stay to the bitter end.

As divisions widened and the issues became more ideological, Lodge 751 was nearly torn apart. Finally Harvey Brown sent GLR (later GVP) Roy Brown to Seattle to investigate and put Lodge 751 under suspension. The trials that followed exposed a large Communist network. Nearly fifty members, including the vice president, were fined and permanently expelled. Nine others were fined but allowed to keep their membership while thirteen were cleared. Since the IAM had a union shop agreement with Boeing those expelled from membership were also fired.

As a result of this experience, the Grand Lodge reorganized the unwieldy Boeing local into a district with members divided by occupation into smaller and more manageable lodges. This restructuring gave individuals more influence over local lodge affairs and more opportunity to be active in the union. The Boeing pattern was later repeated at other large aeronautical industrial districts such as those now in place at Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas and elsewhere.


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