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History

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

The Boomers . . . .

Most of the Machinists Union's organizing, then and for many years to come, was done by a rare breed of men know as boomers. Like most worthwhile movements, the IAM was built on the faith, courage and determination of men (and later women as well) who refused to give in to hardship and defeat. These journeyman were known as boomers because they followed the railroads to towns that were booming.
The boomers were part hobo, part skilled craftsmen. Many years later one of the original boomers, Pete Conlon, recalled that in expanding. West the railroads desperately needed good mechanics. In Conlon's words, the boomers were machinists with a love of adventure and sightseeing who "could make good anywhere." They were fiercely independent. If they didn't like a job they would tell the boss to shove it and move on. . . . Conlon colorfully Described what a boomer coming to a new area could expect:

When a boomer hit town and got a job it was up to someone of the fraternity to square him for a boarding house and at a store to get overalls, soap, tobacco and other necessities. This was always done without question and the boomer generally regarded these obligations as sacred no matter what else the might be guilty of.

As noted, railroads only paid once a month. But, said Conlon:

Thirty days between drinks was a long time for a boomer to go and around the middle of the month a solemn conference would be held as to who would quit and draw his time in order to show the rest of the gang a good time for a night at least. The next morning the boomer would set out for a new town with whatever change he had left. As a general rule, a paid up Machinists' Union card was good for a ride either in the caboose or engine cab. The boomers had a code of their won. They could tell where every member . . . was working and . . . the paydays of every railroad in the United States.


Often boomers had to communicate by a system of secret passwords or signals known only to other machinists. Union organizers not only risked firing and blacklisting but beatings and jail. The old-time boomers accepted these risks. Little by little they spread the word, signing up more machinists, chartering more lodges.
One of Conlon's partners in those early days, Jim Reynolds, later became a state legislator and county commissioner of Cuyahoga County, Ohio. He had joined the first lodge chartered in Cleveland in January 1890 and by the 1940's had become one of the IAM's oldest living continuous dues paying members. In a memoir of those first years he recalled:

In early days if you became active in the Machinists Union you became a wanderer on the face of the earth . . . if you landed in a strange town [and could show your membership card] you could borrow $5.00 from the local lodge, enough to keep you going for quite a while in those days.
Membership in the union meant a great deal to us. Our meetings were conducted in a dignified manner. We had al almost religious feeling toward the ritual of initiation. . . . Every man's character was carefully studied before he was admitted. We investigated  his ability as a craftsman, also. We wanted to furnish employers with high-class, all-around machinists.

By 1910 the boomers had pretty much passed from the scene. The rising number of apprentices in the trade was more than enough to meet the demand for machinists. Moreover, the railroads were no longer expanding in all directions. But, as Peter Conlon wrote in 1927, in a touching tribute to the many boomers he had known -- men with names like "Milwaukee Bill," Fireball McNamara," "Texas Frank," "big Nose Brennan," Scarface Charlie," and so many others,

The old-time boomers deserve a lot of credit from members of the International Association of Machinists. It was their independence that caused railroad officers to respect machinists. They gave the home guard better conditions than he could obtain for himself because they were ready to go to the front on a grievance committee or wage committee and take the consequences without involving anyone else in trouble.

. . . . The delegates (of the second Grand Lodge Convention) also adopted a secret code, known as the Russian Prison Knock Cipher, to be distributed to the membership.
The code's purpose was to help machinists communicate with one another when under cover or in jail. The need for traveling passwords, cipher codes and other forms of secrecy was due either to paranoia nor the kind of reverence for mysteries and mumbo jumbo so dearly loved by the many secret fraternal orders of that time. For many years officers and representatives had no way of quickly communicating from one locality to another except by telegram. In many places the only telegraph office in town was in the railroad depot. This meant that the primary employers of IAM members, the railroads, could literally look over the shoulder of operators sending or receiving union messages.
To safeguard against such eavesdropping the IAM's leaders very early created a cipher code of words and phrases that could be used to conduct union business by wire. By referring to this code a local business representative could wire a wide range of coded messages to the territorial GVP. If he sent the one-word "astute," for example, it meant "I respond with a wire that said "astringent," meaning "Do you think a settlement can be reached if I come or send a GLR?" Or he could answer with the word "atlantic" which meant "Call all machinists out."
The official code contained more than 1400 secret ciphers in all. They covered almost every foreseeable situation that could come up in the conduct  of union business. At least to the eve of the first World War, and possibly even later, cards bearing a secret traveling password were reissued to officers and representatives every six months. 

The Murder of Talbot

 

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