PLEASE BE PATIENT, THIS PAGE MAY TAKE A WHILE TO LOAD

History

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


Eric Peterson
1944-1959
Eric Peterson--The Quiet Man 

When the Council tapped Eric Peterson to fill out Davison's term he had been a GVP since 1937. Like most of the other members of the Executive Council he was a railroader.

Born in Sweden in 1894 Peterson came to Rawlins, Wyoming with his immigrant family at the age of ten. His father was the town shoemaker. After completing grade school young Peterson went to work on the Union Pacific, first as a call boy,* then as an apprentice machinist. Before completing his apprenticeship and becoming eligible for IAM membership Peterson found himself in the thick of the legendary 1911 strike against the Harriman lines. When the shopmen walked out Peterson walked with them. This was the strike that touched off the Person case and brought Wharton to prominence in the labor movement. Peterson became a member two years later, moving to Deer Lode, Montana where he went to work as a machinist on the Milwaukee road. In lager years, he recalled that the IAM had just negotiated a 41 an hour wage rate for machinists.

*Unlike a call girl a call boy's job was to get train crews out of bed.
Though reserved in manner and reticent in speech Peterson projected a sense of unruffled calm and dignity that inspired confidence. He held numerous union offices in Deer Lodge and was among the first out on the picket line in the disastrous 1922 shopmen's strike. Later, when the shopmen returned to work he was elected as a delegate to the district lodge.

Peterson attracted favorable notice from the union's top officers while serving on the Resolution' Committees at the 1928 Grand Lodge Convention. Within a few months Wharton recruited him for a special organizing assignment on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Less than a year later he was appointed to the Grand Lodge staff and posted to the Great Lakes territory. In 1937 he succeeded to the seat on the Council left vacant by the unexpected death of GVP Bowen and was sent to head up the Northwest territory. He was immediately plunged into the IAM's long and bitter struggle against Remington Rand in the Mohawk Valley. In 1940 Harvey Brown brought him to Grand Lodge as Resident GVP.

At least fifty years before the health food fad hit the rest of America and joggers cluttered every highway and byway Eric Peterson was out running early every morning and urging coarse ground whole wheat flour on his friends.

During his fifteen years as GST, Grand Lodge annual receipts rose from $5.5 million to $12.9 million a year. When he took charge of GST operations many of the procedures for keeping the organization's books and records were almost quaintly old-fashioned. On payday, for example, Grand Lodge employees still received their wages in cash, as had the railroaders years before, in little brown pay packets. Peterson shook the cobwebs out of the GST's Department, bringing in modern office machines and introducing more up-to-date methods.

In his contacts with the members Eric Peterson understood that the appearance of rectitude was as important as its practice. Once, when being hosted by business representatives of a large urban district, and evening at the local race track was proposed. Peterson reacted gently but firmly. "It wouldn't look good." he said, "for members of the Machinists Union to see their GST gambling at the horse races."

What Price Affiliation?

As the war wound down government restrictions on travel eased. By early 1945 Harvey Brown itched to get on with the Grand Lodge Convention which should have been held in 1944. Increasingly irritated by Green and the AFL Executive Council, Brown felt he could now muster membership support for disaffiliation. Sentiment for withdrawal from the AFL had solidified on the IAM Council, especially among such younger members as GST Eric Peterson and GVP's Sam Newman, Elmer Walker, Roy Brown and Al Hayes. Apparently, the straw that broke the camel's back was an AFL Executive Council action awarding the Operating Engineers jurisdiction over mechanics and machinists employed in the repair or rebuilding of excavating, hoisting, road-building and other power-generated machinery. IAM members as well as IAM leaders saw this as a gratuitous slap in the face.

The convention was scheduled to begin in New York in late October. As the delegates were literally packing their bags Eric Peterson got work that the Pacific Fleet was putting into New York for two weeks of R & R and the Navy would be commandeering enough hotel rooms to house some 35,000 officers and men. Since it was too late to call off the IAM Convention, Peterson somehow managed to scrounge up enough accommodations, although the last few dozen delegates ended up sleeping four or more to a room. The wartime influx of females into the union was reflected by the presence of six women delegates at the Convention. In debate on a resolution to limit immigration, delegate Elma Morgan of Local Lodge 1600 rose to say:

I am speaking against this resolution. It is a disgrace to this Convention that such a resolution would be here. This country was built by immigrants and foreigners. I am an immigrant myself and a citizen of this country by preference. You go down here and look at the harbor. A beautiful woman stands there. Across her breast are the words: "Give me your huddled masses yearning to breathe free". The "huddled masses" came to this country. Go to Scranton, go to Chicago, go in this great city and see what they have done. The soil of this country has been wet with their blood. They built the buildings. They worked in the mines. We certainly owe them something. The United States is a land of freedom and liberty. Surely this resolution can never pass in this convention of the Fighting Machinists.*
When Sister Morgan sat down Harvey Brown commented on the significance of here appearance at the mike:
Before proceeding, I want to advise the delegates that you witnessed something that has never happened before. You have listened to the first lady addressing a convention as a delegate of the International Association of Machinists.
*After further debate the Convention agreed with Sister Morgan's position, defeating the anti-immigration resolution by voice vote.
Although per capita payments to the AFL had been suspended for almost a year, William Green was invited to present his view of the IAM's jurisdictional problems in the Federation. He carefully skirted the fundamental source of the conflict, i.e. his own week-kneed response to assaults on established jurisdictions. Instead Green delivered a long-winded lecture on loyalty and patriotism and the IAM's historic ties to the AFL. Seeking to flatter Harvey Brown with references to the IAM president's uncompromising courage Green pleaded with the convention to pay back per capita so it could "fight it out like men within the movement and not on the outside."

In a polite but steely response Brown declared,

I may be presumptuous, but I want to make a statement, even at the penalty of some criticism. President Green: There is not one delegate in this convention who would take action to willingly walk out of the American Federation of Labor. But I want to add to that statement, and especially with reference to what you said about per capita tax. It is a fact that there are some payments that have been deferred, possibly some overdue. When we sit down with the fellow to deal with differences that arise out of jurisdiction, we don't want the opposing organization to be in a position to play a card that was not dealt from the deck.
According to the Journal this set off a spontaneous reaction. Delegates rose, applauded, whistled and shouted "Go to it, Harvey! We're with you."

The delegates appointed a special committee to study the problem, hold hearings and make appropriate recommendations. The report was presented by Don Burrows, directing business rep of Lodge 701 in Chicago, a significant power in the union whose previous opposition had been enough to back Brown away from disaffiliation in 1943. This time Burrows credited the Executive Council with trying to seek a fair settlement and recommended the IAM's per capita to the AFL be deferred "pending fair treatment from the AFL."

Green did not wait for this recommendation to be ratified by referendum of the IAM's membership. Immediately upon his return to Washington Green sent a letter to all IAM local lodges notifying them that their international was suspended. In January the membership voted, four to one, to defer per capita payments until the AFL agreed to recognize and enforce the IAM's jurisdiction over the machinists trade. To ease membership anxiety at being isolated from the "House of Labor", Brown called a staff conference in St. Louis in early June. He made it clear that whenever possible IAM lodges would continue to maintain cooperative relationships with the other unions. This would include "joint organizing campaigns, joint strike actions and strikes." Brown announced that a committee of four IAM GVP's (Peterson, Carr, Hayes and Nickerson) had already been appointed to meet with AFL representatives to try to settle the dispute. In the heat of the first few angry weeks, the president of the AFL's Metal Trades Department urged IAM members to transfer to federal unions. And William Green ordered the Canadian Trades and Labour Congress to expel the IAM. When the Canadians informed him that they had autonomy over their own membership cooler heads appeared to prevail. Although the IAM remained out of the AFL for several years, both sides were careful to avoid actions which might have made the split permanent and irreversible.

In many local communities throughout the country the IAM's traditional ties with other AFL local unions remained strong. In May, for example, the IAM's new weekly newspaper, The Machinist, reported on the results of joint IAM-Teamster bargaining covering thirty-three shops in St. Louis. In June, AFL unions of the Bradford (Pa.) Trades Assembly staged a half-holiday sympathy strike and paraded through town in support of IAM members picketing Dresser Industries.

Public Relations and the Weekly Machinist

For nearly sixty years the Journal was the organizations' main channel of communication and for most of that time the channel was two way. All Journal editors started in the shop as working machinists. All were elected to the editorship by vote of the membership. Within limits of time and space the Journal's pages were open to any member with something of interest to say to other members. Over the decades the contents ranged from the technical to the trivial, from homespun humor to pure corn, from thoughtful analysis of economic and political issues to pep talks on unionism, from routine announcements to instructions to local lode officers. Until the 1920's every issue carried a complete roster of local lodges, a practice begun to let traveling journeymen know where local lodges could be found and who to contact in each city or town.

Many early machinists were self-educated in subjects ranging from theology and philosophy to economic and political theory. They tended to be serious readers in an age in which information and ideas wee mostly spread through the written word. In his formal study, The Machinists, Professor Mark Perlman judged the Journal to be "One of the country's finest union publications", saying that at one point it had developed into "Something akin to a machinist's version of Harpers," high praise indeed.

At the end of World War II the organization was greatly changed. Starting with the campaign to organize aircraft workers from wall to wall at Boeing in September 1935, the IAM was steadily transformed from a relatively tight fraternity of like-minded skilled craftsmen to an industrial union that included everyone from floor sweepers and assemblers to tool and die makers and erection machinists.

By the time Hewitt retired in 1945, after serving as editor of thirty years, the Journal had lost a significant share of its readership. The new editor, Lee Thomas, a former business representative from Grand Rapids, tried to get the attention of the new bred of members by redesigning the format and making the Journal easier to read. By that time, however, the Executive Council felt they needed more than a monthly magazine to keep in touch with the IAM's far-flung membership. By the end of World War II serious reading was being replaced by les demanding forms of communications. Even before television revolutionized everything from family life to the political system, IAM members were getting their information less from traditional books and magazines and more from radios, movies, picture magazines such as LIFE and easy to scan condensations such as The Reader's Digest

Local and district lodes began to edit weekly papers for their members. The president of the New York State Council, a militant leftist named Robert Schrank, launched a weekly publication for members in that state. Suspecting that Schrank had Communist leanings, Harvey Brown feared that publications such as his might undermine the International. To keep internal union communications under Grand Lodge control the Executive Council recommended, and the 1945 Convention authorized, a weekly newspaper to be known as The Machinist. Although ostensibly intended as a supplement to, and not a substitute for, the Journal the introduction of Volume I, Number 1 of The Machinist on April 4, 1946 was the beginning of the end for the Journal. After a short break-in period under an acting editor, the Executive Council chose Gordon Cole as permanent editor. Cole was a solid professional with experience that ranged from the labor beat on The Wall Street Journal to a liberal New York daily known as PM. He was also president of the Washington chapter of the Newspaper Guild. Over the next thirty years Cole gave the IAM one of the most readable and widely honored labor newspapers in America.

 


Postwar Turmoil and Trouble
Hook and Dillon Meet Harvey Brown

 

History


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