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History

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

World War II and 
Postwar Reaction
1940~1950

America Goes Back to Work

The war in Europe put America back to work. By mid-1940 unemployment lines began to disappear. From all over the country workers flocked to the aircraft factories of California. In a reference to the westward migration of penniless Okies and Arkies during the dust bowl days of the early '30's, GVP Castleman described the influx as a re-enactment of "The Grapes of Wrath." he tried to discourage IAM members from coming to California in search of employment. In a report to the Journal Castleman warned company propaganda was luring so many workers to aircraft plants, management could get all the help needed at 65 an hour.

Labor generally remained plentiful at the war's beginning but skills quickly became scarce. During the hard times of the 1930's apprentice training in metalworking industries became almost extinct. Industry and government were soon desperate for machinists, tool and die makers and other journeymen metalworkers critically needed in shipyards, arsenals, munitions plants and other defense industries.

Time magazine glowingly described a crash program in New York which used facilities at vocational schools for intensive all-day ten-week training courses in various metalworking skills. The report suggested similar programs in other cities could quickly turn out 150,000 machinists, lathe operators, welders aviation mechanics, electricians and radio technicians, The Journal dismissed this suggestion with true machinists scorn, characterizing it as "harebrained."

As manpower shortages appeared, big business tried to bomb organized labor behind a smokescreen of national defense. Prominent senators and beribboned generals demanded the junking of "restrictive and punitive" New Deal legislation, such as the Wage-Hour law and cessation of NLRB and Labor Department "quibbling regulations."

Newspapers reported certain federal "preparedness officials" as saying the "40-hour week must go and not less than a 60-hour week substituted." Earlier in the year, when Roosevelt called on Congress and the nation for an all-out effort the IAM Executive Council immediately pledged full support by union Machinists. But when big business publications began talking about sixty-hour work weeks and repealing the New Deal, the Journal countered with a call for drafting factories and profits as well as men and labor.

Unloading An Albatross

As noted earlier, the 1920 Grand Lodge Convention put the IAM in the business of selling low-cost insurance to the membership. This was in addition to the long standing death benefit that built up to $300 for members with twenty years of continuous service. Through its insurance program, the union tried to give members protection many needed at a price most could afford to pay. Insurance was also meant to be an organizing tool, but it was dead weight from the start. Before the program was adopted, many members expressed interest but once it was launched relatively few signed up.

The Grand Lodge struggled for years to put the program on a sound footing. GLR's and business representatives regularly touted IAM insurance at membership meetings and organizers used it to try to sell the union. The plan was carefully explained to new members and financial secretaries were paid commissions on premiums collected. The Grand Lodge prepared and mailed out tons of literature explaining insurance largely appealed to older members--those in their 50's, 60's and 70's. By 1928 the program was an actuarial disaster and by 1940 a potentially bankrupting liability was building up.

Delegates to the 1928 and 1936 Grand Lodge Convention recognized the danger, the rank and file stubbornly refused to ratify discontinuance by referendum. Following the 1940 Grand Lodge Convention in Cleveland, they finally consented to get rid of this albatross when the Law Committee devised a complex but acceptable formula for paying off existing claims.

IAM vs. The Carpenters

When Harvey Brown took over from Wharton he inherited a Carpenter challenge to IAM jurisdiction. The issue was not new, being rooted in events that had occurred some twenty-five years earlier.

At the century's beginning, Carpenters and Machinists universally agreed that one should work with wood and the other with metal. This sensible arrangement shattered in 1913 during a Metal Trades Department boycott against a notoriously anti-union company in York, Pennsylvania. Following the IAM's refusal to handle or install the company's machinery, the Carpenters decided to try and take over this part of the IAM's jurisdiction. When Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis hired Machinist members to erect and dismantle machinery the Carpenters set up picket lines and announced a boycott against Anheuser-Busch beers.  The IAM appealed to the 1914 AFL Convention and its traditional jurisdiction over "building, assembling, erecting, dismantling and repairing of machines" was affirmed.

For the next quarter of a century, when the issue arose, the AFL routinely informed employers that such work belonged to the IAM. But by the late 1930's he AFL executive Council came under the domination of building trades unions. In the spring of 1938 Carpenter President William Hutcheson* threatened to end per capita payments unless AFL President William Green ceased sending a standard telegram in response to employer queries concerning jurisdiction over "building, assembling, erecting, dismantling and repairing of machines." As president of the federation, Green had a clear duty to enforce convention resolutions and mandates. But he quickly backed down in the face of Hutcheson's bluff. Encouraged by Green's spineless capitulation two other unions, the Operating Engineers and the Street Carmen, revived and reasserted old jurisdictional claims against the IAM.

*The same Hutcheson whose nose John L. Lewis had punched at the 1935 AFL Convention.
The Machinists felt betrayed. The IAM Executive Council was still mostly made up of journeymen who had apprenticed on the railroads. They had trained and worked in shops where half a dozen unions could peacefully co-exist because they scrupulously respected one another's jurisdictions.

IAM lodges, already busy defending themselves against CIO raids, found themselves battling other AFL unions as well. Brown was unable to get redress from an AFL Executive Council dominated by officers of building trades unions. According to the Journal, "350,000 Fighting Machinists were fighting mad."

Brown sought to counter Hutcheson's bluff with one of his own. He suspended the IAM's per capita--amounting to some $100,000 a year but this only brought yawns from the building trades. Brown changed course, resuming per capita payments to assure the IAM delegates would be seated to present the IAM's case at the 1941 Convention in Seattle. This attempt to win redress was also fruitless. The Convention passed the buck by referring the controversy back to the AFL Executive Council, in effect, asking the Council to pass judgment on itself.

The following year the Carpenters twisted the knife further at a Weyerhauser plant in Klamath Falls, Oregon, where the Machinists had organized the machine shop and helped the Carpenters organize a unit of woodworkers in the sawmill. As the IAM contract neared expiration, CIO organizers served notice of interest in the machine shop. Instead of supporting the IAM against the raid, the Carpenters filed for a place on the ballot. While the IAM won the NLRB election by a comfortable margin, this back-stabbing by another AFL Union widened the wedge between Harvey Brown and the rest of the AFL Executive Council.

In April 1943, the IAM Executive Council conducted a referendum asking membership approval for withdrawal from the AFL. The result appeared to be a vote of confidence for Brown; the members approved disaffiliation by almost three to one. But the count was deceptive, fewer than 20% of the members voted and the Canadian lodges lined up against disaffiliation almost two to one. Pockets of opposition also showed up in areas where lodges had close ties to city central bodies, including the big Chicago automotive Lodge, 701.

When the Council voted to disaffiliate, GST Davison registered his disapproval, saying he believed the referendum was contrary to the IAM Constitution. Steve Lyons, the Canadian GVP, also voted against withdrawal, pointing out that it would not change the AFL's position and would only jeopardize the IAM's affiliations with the Metal Trades Department, the Railroad Employees' Department and local federations.

These views were more widely shared in the IAM than the referendum vote indicated. To old line IAM craftsmen the AFL had always been "The House of Labor." By 1943 the IAM had been part of the AFL for almost fifty years, supporting it loyally in battles with the IWW and the CIO. Disaffiliation created more of a trauma than Brown had anticipated. Despite the referendum vote Brown realized that withdrawal from the federation would cause serious problems within the IAM. He swallowed his pride and reopened negotiations with Green who promised to try to resolve the problem with the Carpenters. Brown paid the IAM's per capita and the Machinists remained in the House of Labor. As soon as the Machinists were safely back in the fold, "Sitting Bill," as John L. Lewis called Green, reverted to form, kowtowing to the building trades, as impotent and ineffectual as ever. While the IAM stayed in the AFL throughout the war, the fracture did not heal. With the support and connivance of other building trades unions the Carpenters became even more blatant in laying claim to the IAM's jurisdiction.


 Pearl Harbor and Patriotism--Corporate Style,
Rosie the Riveter,
Splitting at the Seams,
FDR: "Labor's Cooperative--Splendid",
The War Labor Board and the Union Shop

History


Comments or Suggestions? E-mail the Communications Officer
of Siouxland Lodge 1426 IAMAW
Greg Enright