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
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
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
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
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