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History

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

Notes on a Union In Wartime

Throughout the war, letters, reports and articles in the Journal reflected worry about what would happen to workers and unions when the war was over. To the hundreds of thousands of middle-aged and older machinists holding down the home front, memories of the open shop '20's and the dirty '30's were like open wounds. And it didn't help when former President Herbert Hoover came out of retirement to inform a raucously cheering wartime NAM Convention that "to secure maximum production" all "rules of Labor" should be swept aside except those "which safeguard health." Nor were the fears of organized workers eased by the stream of anti-union laws that flowed from state legislatures throughout the war. In 1943 Florida became the first state to outlaw the union shop, thus becoming the model for an epidemic of right-to-work-for-less laws in other Southern and farm-dominated legislatures.

In June, 1943 a group of union research directors met to discuss postwar economic planning. The IAM was represented by Paul Hutchings who later served many years as research director for the Metal Trades Department of the AFL-CIO. The union economists noted that with 12 million Americans in the armed forces and 33 million in war industries, the war's end would require a shift of some 45 million workers to peacetime occupations. Fearing that as many as 30 million could be left jobless the union research heads warned that without planning, the postwar world would be grim, with "ex-soldiers selling apples in the street, masses of workers idle in war production centers, people starving in one part of the country while food surpluses rot in other parts."

When France collapsed and the British were driven into the sea in May 1940 President Roosevelt delivered one of his famous fireside chats to the American people. Citing the clear and present danger to American democracy FDR called on industry and labor to produce 50,000 planes a year, a goal many people considered preposterous. Isolationists snickered and conservative newspapers ridiculed the possibility of achieving such production. Even working families, where sentiments toward the President usually ranged from admiration to reverence, thought it probably couldn't be done. 

In March 1944 Harvey Brown reported in the Journal that U. S. aircraft factories were turning out 9,000 planes a month with another plane rolling off the assembly lines every five minutes, day and night, seven days a week. This output was in addition to 424,000 artillery pieces, 1,160,000,000 shells, 1,200,000 trucks and 148,000 tanks produced in 1942 and 1943.

By August, 1944, the Normandy beachheads had been secured, Paris liberated and Allied troops were closing in on the Third Reich from both east and west. With the end in sight cutbacks were ordered in war production and for the first time since 1940 workers began to receive layoff notices. The AFL Research Department predicted four million would be jobless by the end of the year. With some bitterness the Journal noted that Congress had "taken care of business through generous 'contract termination' legislation", but "the men and women who performed the 'miracles of production' faced the bleak prospect of wholesale unemployment.

Meanwhile, in Canada, employer groups attempted to use the war as justification for severing traditional ties between Canadian locals and U. S.-based internationals. They charged that as long as international links were allowed, Canadian workers would be under "foreign control" with agitators from across the border fomenting strikes and other disturbances. Rebuttal came from Canadian GVP Steve Lyons before the Canadian War Labour Board. In a widely reported statement as valid today as then, Lyons noted that:

International unions developed on the North American continent as a result of a community of interest, of similar economic conditions, of geographic propinquity, of the interchange of labour from one side of the border to the other, of the close connection of employing interests in both countries and . . . the enormous and inescapable influence the [U. S. industry] exercises in our country.
Lyons went on to point out that
The industrialists and financiers of Canada betray no such national jealousy when dealing with their own interests. Capital knows no frontiers. Labour has never sought to interfere with the international affiliations, interlocking interests an common policies of their employers on both sides of the line.
Jack and Heintz: "The Workers' Paradise"

The Jack and Heintz company of Cleveland became nationally celebrated during the war for high productivity and generous employee benefits. Though it had a union shop contract with District 54 and its 4,000 production workers were members of Local Lodge 439, Jack and Heintz symbolized the ultimate in company paternalism. The founder, Bill Jack, had been a business representative for District 54 during the First World War. But, as the Reader's Digest and other widely circulated publications told their readers, he now headed a company in which employees, called "associates," earned between $7,000 and $8,000 a year at a time when half as much was considered good money.* Jack's "associates" also had a range of benefits that made the company seem like a workers paradise. They received free medical care at a time when few workers did. They were served free meals at company cafeterias each day, got free saunas and massages at the end of each shift and received two-week paid vacations without cost at company-leased resorts in Florida for married workers and in Quebec for singles.

*During the war the IP's annual salary was $7,500
There was, of course, a flip side to this joyous relationship. While workers took home fabulous wages they also worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week with only one day off a month. Moreover, the employee benefit booklet bluntly stated that any benefits not negotiated by the union were purely voluntary on the part of management and that the company reserved the unequivocal right to cancel or change any benefit in any way without advance notice. And while the starting wage for men was 95 an hour that of women was 75 an hour. Even so, Bill Jack was undeniably a hero to most of his workers. Retired District 54 business representative, Harold Swan, worked at Jack and Heintz during the war. He recalls that Bill Jack's door was always open and that he made a point of knowing hundreds of his "associates" by their first name.

The cozy relationship, between Bill Jack and his worker's led to problems for District 54. His influence over members of Local Lodge 439 meant that he personally handpicked the officers. Moreover Bill Jack thought he could run the district better than Directing Business Representative Matt DeMore. During one district election for new officers, Jack shut down and sent several thousand workers to the lodge hall in specially rented buses to vote for his candidates. Eventually the district changed its bylaws and the Executive Council place Local Lodge 439 under suspension to neutralize the influence of this "model" employer.

When the flood of wartime orders slowed to a trickle in 1945 Time magazine reported "Trouble in Paradise." Workers who had been getting what Time described as "sky high wages" no longer enjoyed Jack's Turkish baths, or free insurance or Florida vacations. After the war Bill Jack sold out for several million dollars and retired to California. The "associates" became ordinary workers again and incentives once more ended in speedups. By the early '50's Jack and Heintz was paradise lost. Members of 439 were forced to fight speedups with strikes as the company's identity was lost in a maze of corporate mergers. Once again workers learned the difference between rights and benefits won through union negotiations and those bestowed by a benevolent employer.

Nibbled by Minnows

Jurisdictional encroachments on the IAM's turf continued throughout the war. The IAM's transition form craft to industrial unionism worsened longstanding hostilities with the Carpenters and Operating Engineers while opening new animosities with other building trades unions of the CIO.

With almost 700,000 members the IAM was one of the AFL's largest affiliates by the end of 1944. But with so many smaller unions ganging up against it in the AFL Executive Council, Machinists felt the rising irritation of being nibbled by minnows. While jurisdictional squabbles might have bee eased by patience and flexibility, Harvey Brown was more pugnacious than patient, more prone to fury than flexibility.

By the end of 1944 the IAM's relationship with the AFL was at an all-time low. After returning to the "House of Labor" in the fall of 1943, the Machinists had received little more than insults for their per capita. It was a thoroughly frustrated Executive Council that met in November, 1944 to deal with the problem. The Council called for a membership referendum to authorize an emergency convention to chart a response to the AFL's shabby treatment.*

*The convention which normally would have been held in 1944 had been postponed due to the difficulties of travel in wartime.
The End of an Era

The meeting took place without Emmet Davison who was lying in Doctors Hospital in Washington, the victim of a massive heart attack. He died two weeks later after serving longer than most members could remember: Twenty-seven years as GST and before that seven years as a local business representative and Grand Lodge organizer. More important than mere length was the quality of his service.

In the longest term ever served by a GST in the IAM Davison dealt with three proud and strong-minded international presidents. He served quietly, conscientiously and with good humor through the desperate open shop 1920's and the dismal depression 1930's. While his relationship with Wharton became increasingly strained he did not let personal feelings interfere with official duties. Although J. F. Anderson, the loser in the 1925 election for IP, attacked his character in the pamphlet entitled "The Big Steal" he was wholly vindicated by an investigative panel which included Anderson. The records prove that he was scrupulously honest, correct and fair throughout the twenty-seven years he was chief custodian of the IAM's finances. From Preston he received a tradition of strict financial integrity. He passed that tradition on intact and strengthened to his successor, Eric Peterson. An activist and a joiner Davison enjoyed friends in every walk of life. As a popular mayor of Alexandria, Virginia he defied the anti-union Byrd political machine that controlled the state. Knowing he had little chance of winning he ran for Congress against the primitive but powerful reactionary who represented Northern Virginia on Capitol Hill. Davison's funeral was one of the biggest ever seen in Alexandria.


Eric Peterson--The Quiet Man
What Price Affiliation?
Public Relations and the Weekly Machinist

 

History


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