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
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.