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History

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

Postwar Turmoil and Trouble

Japan's surrender in August, 1945 uncorked the genie of industrial discord. Over the next year-and-a-half labor and management slugged it out across picket lines in almost every industry. FDR's successor in the White House, Harry Truman, desperately tried to keep a lid on wages and prices, urging workers to continue the no-strike pledge given at the war's beginning. But when the shooting stopped, the backlog of pent-up grievances could no longer be contained. Workers were in a testy mood; most had been working at least forty-eight hours a week, many sixty or more. For four years worker complaints about conditions on the job were met with the snide response, "Don't you know there's a war on?" Even more important, prices began to outpace wages. Many commodities were still subject to federal price controls but, as Truman's Secretary of Labor, Lewis Schwellenbach, pointed out, the buying power of the dollar dropped 16.6% from April 1945 to September 1946.

Between Hiroshima in August, 1945 and Election Day in November, 1946, more than five-million Americans marched on picket lines. Strikes closed such crucial industries as coal, auto electric, steel maritime and railroading. In June, 1946, GST Eric Peterson reported that in the first ten months following the war the IAM paid out an average of $100,000 a month in strike benefits. This included $273,000 to members striking Consolidated-Vultee in San Diego and Ft. Worth. The IAM's $10 a week strike benefits were then paid directly out of the general fund.

Most of today's older workers recall Harry Truman with affection. And over the long run he proved to be a friend of labor. But Harry Truman sometimes shot from the hip. When two railroad brotherhoods, the Locomotive Engineers and the Trainmen, pulled the pin on the railroads in May 1946, Truman went before Congress and demanded the strikers be drafted into the Army.* Harvey Brown angrily denounced this as an attempt "to put labor under the yoke of militarism."

*Actually the brotherhoods had agreed to a settlement shortly before Truman made his "Draft the strikers" proposal. Evidence is strong that he knew it and was grandstanding for purposes of public opinion.
While Congress rejected the idea of drafting free workers, it quickly enacted legislation, known as the Case Bill, viewed by organized labor as almost as repressive. The Case Bill outlawed strikes during a sixty-day cooling off period, authorized employers to sue unions for contract violations, took away worker bargaining rights in case of picket line violence and outlawed secondary boycotts. Truman regained his sense of fairness by the time this measure hit this desk and to organized labor's great relief he vetoed it.

While quick to publicize and condemn strikers, newspapers paid les attention to businesses that profiteered by exploiting shortages of food, housing and other commodities,* some of which were clearly artificial. On the eve of the 1946 Congressional elections, cattle growers stopped shipping and meatpackers held back inventories in a coordinated--and eventually successful--effort to discredit and destroy the Office of Price Administration (OPA). By the time Election Day 1946 rolled around, the American people were in a sour mood, directing their anger at the Democrats who had controlled both houses of Congress since 1932.

The new editor of the Journal, Lee Thomas, sensed that a catastrophe was impending. Over the years he had created a column of home-spun, shop-talk philosophy for the Journal, which he called "The Old-Timer Beats His Gums." A month before the election the "Old-Timer" predicted that in the upcoming election, "The average working man will beat his brains out figuring an alibi for keeping away from the voting booth." Unfortunately, the "Old-Timer" was right. The IAM's new weekly, The Machinist, reported the ". . . most intensive effort in history to elect the friends and defeat the enemies of labor at this years' Congressional elections." The effort proved to be too little, too late, As chronicled by the banner headline across the first page of the November 14 issue of The Machinist, the 1946 Congressional election was a political disaster for working people. Many of labor's staunchest friends in both the House and Senate were engulfed by a reactionary avalanche. Anti-union conservatives also gained control of most state legislatures, setting the stage for anti-union legislation at both the federal and state level, including the federal Taft-Hartley Act and a wave of state right-to-work-for-less laws. The 1946 election brought young Richard Milhous Nixon to the House of Representatives on the wings of the first of the mean and dirty political campaigns that became his trade mark. This was also the election in which the Wisconsin Senate seat, so long honored by the name LaFollette, fell to an odious practitioner of fear and smear, the infamous Joe McCarthy.

Hook and Dillon Meet Harvey Brown

After VJ Day, plants seized by the government to avert and end war-time strikes were rapidly returned to private hands. In San Francisco, where the Navy had checkmated Lodges 68's business representatives, Hook and Dillon, in 1943, the stage was set for a classic postwar collision between labor and management. By the summer of 1945 Hook and Dillon were once more free to lead their members out on strike. The two lost little time in presenting metalworking employers with post-war contract demands. Contemporary reports indicate that as a team they were always affable and polite, neither threatening nor blustering. But, in effect, employers were told, "Gentlemen, the Navy is out and the time has come to pay up." In other West Coast cities, including Oakland, San Jose, Los Angeles, Stockton, Seattle and Portland, IAM negotiators had set a wage pattern of 18%. In San Francisco Hook and Dillon demanded a 30% wage increase, two weeks vacation with pay plus nine paid holidays and a weekly guaranteed wage. Hook and Dillon orchestrated their negotiations with a United Steelworker local formed from the nucleus of the membership of old lodge 284, which Wharton had expelled prior to the 1936 Grand Lodge Convention. Such collaboration with the CIO was normally considered dual unionism. In this case the Executive Council considered it near treason.

When Lodge 68 applied to Grand Lodge for strike sanction, Harvey Brown asked for assurances that Hook and Dillon would not only stop negotiating jointly with a dual union but that they would abide by the IAM Constitution in taking a strike vote and giving notice required by federal law. The War Labor Disputes Act (also known as the Smith-Connally Act), passed in 1943, still required unions to give the Department of Labor thirty days notice before going on strike. Unable to get such assurances from Hook and Dillon, both the IAM Executive Council and the San Francisco Central Labor Council withheld strike sanctions.

Negotiations broke off when Hook and Dillon rejected the industry's "final offer" of 10%. Management dug in for a long strike. The result was a stalemate that tied up Bay Area industry throughout the fall and winter of 1945-46. Although consumer shortages soon developed, Hook and Dillon refused to compromise, saying there was nothing to negotiate.

In February, 1946 the Executive Council held its regular winter meeting in Washington. By then per capita for Lodge 68's 8,000 members was several months in arrears and rank-and-file members were charging flagrant violations of the IAM's "Little Green Book"--the Grand Lodge Constitution. According to reports filtering back to Washington, Hook and Dillon were telling employers "to take it or leave it" while refusing to submit counter offers to membership vote. 

Since this affected not only the 8,000 members of Local Lodge 68, but thousands of other IAM members throughout the Bay Area, the Executive Council decided to go to San Francisco to check out the situation on the spot. The train trip across the country took five days. Upon arrival Harvey Brown called a special membership meeting, intending to present the employers' latest offer of 15%. When he tried to preside at a mass meeting in San Francisco's Civic Auditorium, he and the rest of the Executive Council were greeted with catcalls and boos. Hook and Dillon had carefully packed the hall with their supporters, and efforts to conduct the meeting were drowned in Bronx cheers, points of order and general bedlam. For thirty-five minutes Harvey Brown tried vainly to establish order. Seething with rage he adjourned the meeting, deciding the time had come to break the power of Hook and Dillon on their home ground.

Brown knew it would not be easy to loosen the grip Hook and Dillon had on Lodge 68. Their militance in bargaining had built a powerful core of support in the lodge. More significantly they had in their possession the lodge records, the keys to the lodge hall and control over the lodge checkbook. But Brown had prepared himself for a showdown. Before the Executive Council boarded the train in Washington he arranged to have Eric Peterson bring some 8,000 envelopes addressed to the homes of Lodge 68 members. These were mailed to poll the members' response to the employers' latest 15% offer. While the ballots were still in the mail the Executive Council summoned the officers of Loge 68 to show cause why their charter should not be suspended. When the summons was ignored the Council lifted Lodge 68's charter.

Harvey Brown followed through by petitioning the district court for a writ ordering Hook and Dillon to turn over the lodge books, keys and accounts. Meanwhile the ballots on the employers' 15% offer produced a majority in favor of acceptance. The Executive Council then met with the employers an negotiated an even better deal--an 18% wage increase plus six paid holidays and two weeks' vacation.

Hook and Dillon fought back. They called a mass meeting attended by diehards who voted to secede from the IAM and continue the strike. A few picket lines were set up, but within days the rebellion petered out for lack of support. Charges were then served on Hook and Dillon. Refusing to respond they were tried in absentia and fined and expelled. Embittered, Dillon dropped out of the labor movement altogether but Hook went with the CIO Steel Workers local (the offshoot of old IAM Local Lodge 284). Many years later, in the 1960's Roy Siemiller readmitted Hook as part of a membership swap with the USW. GVP Stan Jensen says that when Hook died he had his IAM due book in his pocket.

 


The Taft-Hartley Act
The Machinists Non-Partisan Political League
Organize, Educate, One Million by '48

 

History


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of Siouxland Lodge 1426 IAMAW
Greg Enright