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History

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

The Battle of Seattle

The IAM's first contract with Boeing, signed in 1936, was followed by more than a decade of good relationships with the company. During the war years, the first simple agreement was expanded and improved in several negotiations without the hint of a work stoppage. By 1947, however, the climate for collective bargaining at Boeing, as in the rest of the nation, had deteriorated. Mounting layoffs foretold new kinds of problems, such as increased conflict over the rights of foremen to bump back into the bargaining unit. It soon became clear that labor and management were going to clash over fundamental issues of job security. Moreover, by 1947 District 751 realized it was negotiating with a new breed of management.

The passing of the founding generation of master builders at Boeing was symbolized by the death of company president Phil Johnson, who had led Boeing to greatness. For years Johnson personally negotiated with the union. When the company was small he dealt with employees in the shop in an easy man-to-man way. But with his passing a new generation took over, with lawyers replacing engineers and bureaucrats displacing builders. In 1947, for the first time, the company's negotiations were conducted by professionals and technicians.

When the union presented its initial proposals--none of which were unusual or extreme--it expected counter proposals from which bargaining could then proceed. Instead the company's new director of industrial relations rejected each proposal as "too costly", "not workable", or "we couldn't do that". When management refused the usual understanding that any agreement would be retroactive the bargaining committee realized these negotiations were going to be different. Despite the company's unexpected stonewalling no one anticipated a strike. Only much later, when weeks of stalled negotiations dragged into months, did the workers realize they might be headed for their first walkout at Boeing.

The final sticking point was the company's demand for complete control over a total number of employees equal to 10 percent of the union's membership without regard to seniority. Boeing adamantly insisted on the right to unilaterally hire, fire, transfer, lay off or recall any 10 percent of the work force. No self-respecting union could accept such a proposal. Pointing out that seniority is the basic union right from which other rights flow the union stressed that giving the company such arbitrary power over seniority would all but cancel the collective bargaining agreement. Control of seniority meant control over layoffs, recalls, promotions, vacation rights, shift preferences, and practically every other condition of employment. For more than a year the district and the Grand Lodge sought a reasonable solution through negotiations and the help of federal conciliators. Harvey Brown traveled to Seattle to meet personally with Boeing's top man, William Allen. But an agreement could not be reached.

Meanwhile the country was coming down with a bad case of anti-unionism. The infection showed up in Congress in the headlong rush to enact the Taft-Hartley Act. Emboldened by the prevailing political climate Boeing continued to demand union surrender on the seniority issue. 

Throughout the negotiations the company seemed to be goading the union into a strike. On the eve of Harvey Brown's arrival in Seattle, for example, it announced a pay raise for guards and firemen. Shortly thereafter it upped the wages of some 3,000 non-union office and supervisory employees.

With months of fruitless talks leading nowhere, members in the plants became increasingly restive. The Grand Lodge tried to keep the lid on. The Executive Council was not eager to have so many members on strike in one place at one time. At one point, negotiations were suspended while the NLRB took a poll under the recently enacted Taft-Hartley Act to determine whether Boeing's workers wanted to continue the union shop clause that had been in their contract from the beginning.

For a union security clause to be approved, the law required a two-thirds majority of all those in the bargaining unit, not merely those actually voting. This meant any eligible employee who failed to vote would be counted against the union. When the election was held, early in 1948, 12,824 Boeing employees cast ballots. 12,136 voted for the union shop. Even when non-voters were counted against union security the union shop won by 94.9 percent vote.  During the first year of Taft-Hartley the IAM was involved in 2,522 union shop elections and won 2,472 of them--an astounding 98%. As previously noted the workers' desire for union security was so universally overwhelming that even Senator Taft was finally forced to agree that union shop elections were a waste of time. This section of Taft-Hartley was repealed in 1952.

By April 1948, negotiations between District 751 and Boeing reached the end of the line. The company dismissed the union's final proposal out of hand and refused to arbitrate. A last minute effort by a committee of GVP's--Al Hayes, Roy Brown and Joe McBreen--collapsed when Boeing President William Allen refused to see them. The GVP's recommended that strike sanctions be granted immediately.

Throughout the long and exhausting months of frustrating negotiations, union members and leaders alike were baffled by management's apparent desire to force a strike. When the strike began, the motivation became clear. Mr. Allen was aiming for nothing less than District 751's total destruction.

At first, the picket lines, manned twenty-four hours a day, seemed peaceful enough. But, when the company started bringing supervisors and scabs through to do the work of the strikers, flurries of fist fights and name calling broke out. The company sought and got a court order limiting pickets to no more than three at each gate. In retaliation, the union mounted loud speakers in moving cars and began taking pictures of scabs and strike breakers. A few homemade bombs were set off around town. After a hole was blown in the roof of union headquarters a twenty-four hour guard was set up. At no time were efforts made to damage company property or interfere with the comings and goings of company officials. Although the IAM was not affiliated with the AFL at this time, other unions in Seattle were quick to line up with offers of help on the picket line, with money and other support.

District 751 Meets Porky Pig

There was, however, a notable exception. As the dispute dragged into the second month, the strikers were caught off guard by evidence the Teamsters had joined Boeing in a union-busting conspiracy. Until then District 751, like the IAM as a whole, generally had a good relationship with the Teamsters in the Pacific Northwest. Despite battles with CIO unions, respect for jurisdictional boundaries had not yet disappeared entirely in the labor movement. Because aircraft manufacturing was not even remotely within the jurisdiction of the trucker's union, District 751 members were shocked to learn the Teamsters were operating a strike-breaking hiring hall for Boeing. It was hard to believe that even the most corrupt union would serve as a recruiting agency for scabs. The Teamsters told new hires it was okay to work in the plant and even began to sign up former IAM members who had given up and crossed the picket line.

District 751 was stabbed in the back by Dave Beck, one of the slimy characters who occasionally manage to worm their way into positions of power in the labor movement. Beck, who later became IBT President, wielded enormous power in the Teamster hierarchy. A paunchy, porcine figure, he wallowed in luxurious perks, including a millionaire's mansion for a residence, provided gratis by the IBT's executive board. He later went to prison for income tax fraud but at the time of the Boeing strike he was fawned upon by the press and politicians as a "labor statesman" who knew how to get along with businessmen. Always prepared to sign a sweetheart contract, always ready to sell out workers, Beck was a regent of the University of Washington and hobnobbed with all the best people at exclusive watering holes. This was the creature with whom Boeing President William Allen preferred to deal.

The strike dragged on through the spring and summer. An NLRB trial examiner--and later the full Board--found the company guilty of unfair labor practices. Boeing was ordered to reinstate the strikers with back pay and negotiate in good faith. Although the decision favored the union it put the strikers on the horns of a dilemma. They had to go back to work to get retroactive back pay. But as long as they were on strike they couldn't to back to work. The situation was further muddied by the company's open desire to replace the IAM's Aero Mechanics Lodge with the Teamsters' "Aeronautical Workers" Local in a new representation election. 

Under the recently enacted Taft-Hartley Law, the only workers eligible to vote in a representation election were those on the payroll and at work on the day of the election. Obviously, the longer the walkout lasted the more Teamsters hires there would be when the election was held. 

To protect their representation rights the members voted to call off the strike and go back to work. After five months on the picket lines they still had no contract. The company refused to recognize the IAM's business representatives or deal with its stewards in the shop. The grievance procedure ceased to exist. For the next several months the company and the union waited for the courts to rule on the NLRB order. When the ruling came, it was a disaster, totally reversing the Board's order. Unlike the hearing examiner who was presumed to have special expertise in labor relations and who heard and weighed the testimony first hand, the court found that under the Taft-Hartley Act the union was guilty of an illegal strike. By ruling that the IAM had forfeited its rights as bargaining agent, the judge gave the Teamsters an open shot at the IAM's bargaining unit at Boeing.

Accepting the challenge district lodge president Harold Gibson immediately petitioned for a new election. By this time the work force was a mixed bag of Machinist, Teamsters and an unknown quantity of workers identified with neither. Most of the latter, as well as the Teamster recruits, had gone through IAM picket lines. All were eligible to vote. 

The IAM's future at Boeing looked bleak. Allen plainly preferred Dave Beck's brand of sweetheart unionism and his company's influence pervaded the State of Washington. The Teamsters were primed to pour in as much money and manpower as necessary to take the unit away from the IAM. The odds were further tilted toward the Teamsters by the sad state of District 751's finances. For five months it had supplemented Grand Lodge strike benefits with extra cash and groceries for members with large families or who had been especially hard hit. Nevertheless the district, with full support from Grand Lodge, came out fighting.

Their Finest Hour

By the time District 751 went toe to toe with the Teamsters in an NLRB election in November 1949, almost three years had passed since the first meeting opened what union members assumed would be a normal round of contract negotiations in January 1947. During many long and nerve-wracking months IAM members and leaders suffered sacrifices and setbacks. Through it all a dedicated inner core retained a kind of blind faith that they would win in the end. Tom Tippett, the IAM's education director, in an unpublished history of District 751, wrote "this was their finest hour."

As the campaign developed the Teamsters published a weekly newspaper featuring smear and fear. It attacked the IAM as a dual union outside the AFL, unworthy of support from true trade unionists. The Teamster publication accused 751's officers of illegal acts and predicted the company would win a multi-million dollar damage suit against the IAM, making individual members liable for damages. Resorting to the Hitler "big lie" technique the Teamster's propagandists repeated, over and over, that an IAM victory would mean no more defense contracts for Boeing and Seattle would become a ghost town.

District 751 and the Grand Lodge were not without resources of their own. They fought fire with fire. Teamsters and company propaganda were countered not only by the weekly Aero-Mechanic newspaper, but also with twice-a-week radio programs and paid ads on both radio and in the daily newspaper.* Billboard space was bought along well-traveled highways and placards were placed in bars, barber shops and other businesses. Letters were mailed. Meetings were held. Speakers were sent throughout the community to talk to schools, clubs, churches and anyone else who would listen. Top GLR's from around the country were brought in to serve as a fast-moving squad of house-calling organizers. These included some who had started out at Boeing as well as old-timers who volunteered to come out of retirement and work the neighborhoods.

*Seattle was Beck's hometown and his power and influence there were enormous. Neither newspapers nor radio stations would carry ads which they feared he might find offensive. Thus a double standard prevailed. The Teamsters could write or say just about anything they wanted while the IAM's ads were heavily censored.
Once again William Green injected himself into a Machinists fight. Old "Sitting Bill" recorded a radio broadcast in which he delivered a script written by the Teamsters. He also posed with Beck in a picture publicizing the speech, the two grinning side by side, Green's hand placed affectionately on Beck's shoulder.

Green's remarks repeated the bugaboo about Seattle becoming a ghost town if the IAM won. While the charge was ridiculous it seemed to alarm many who feared such reprisal. District 751's officers looked for someone with sufficient prestige and substance to rebut the nationally known president of the AFL. They called on the IAM's newly elected president, Al Hayes, who prepared a dignified and polished speech for broad cast in Seattle. While he did not stoop to personal attacks, vulgarity or gutter language, he pulled no punches in linking Beck and the Teamsters to strikebreaking. Fearful of Beck, the radio station red-penciled Hayes remarks to a state of innocuousness. District president Harold Gibson stormed through the station, with the red-penciled version in his hand, threatening to submit it as evidence of censorship to the FCC. He also warned the Machinist would finance and sponsor a campaign to lift the station's license. Through such persuasion Hayes' speech was carried in its original form.

This was the first time most IAM members and other workers at Boeing heard Hayes. A superb public speaker, he came across as a leader with intelligence, dignity and character. In the final days of the campaign men and women employed at Boeing were able to compare Hayes and Beck in person. The contrast between Hayes' trade union integrity and Beck's oily opportunism was clear.

Hayes also brought off a last-minute master stroke with a letter from White House Assistant John Steelman (who was also a former Secretary of the Air Force) confirming that Boeing would continue to be used for Air Force production regardless of the outcome of the election. Hayes read the letter to a mass meeting of several thousand Boeing employees and overnight Gibson papered the town with thousands of reprints.

With one of the largest single bargaining units in America at stake, the Machinists and the Teamsters threw all their chips into the battle. Though the outcome was uncertain until the final count, the Teamsters were cocky with confidence. They not only spent more money but were given kid glove treatment by the newspapers and radio stations. They also enjoyed the all too obvious support of Boeing's top management. On election night they rented a large hall so all could come and help celebrate their victory.

At IAM headquarters, the leaders crossed their fingers and simply told the members the results would be announced the next day when the final vote was counted. That night, despite the uncertainty, the faithful came from all over the city to keep a kind of vigil. Hour after hour they came wandering into the district hall. By midnight the overflow eddied out to the sidewalks and into the surrounding streets. Tom Tippett later wrote:

The crowd was somber. Hope was in the air, but nobody know for sure. A lot of water had passed over the dam since the strike. Thousands of new workers were in the plant and they had voted. Now the crowd, in and around the union headquarters could do nothing but wait. Sometime after midnight GLR Jack Bentley walked in and as he went past a staff member he whispered "We've won by 3 to 1".
Within seconds the word was out and hundreds of men and women broke into an exultant mixture of cheers and tears. Months of strain and tension dissolved into roars of triumph. But while one fight was over, another was just beginning. The road back to a good collective bargaining relationship with Boeing was long and hard. When District Lodge 751 originally opened negotiations for a new contract in January 1947, it had the best contract in the aircraft industry. Three years later the best it could hope for was a foundation from which it could rebuild for the future. it took District 751 members years to regain the confidence and conditions that were lost in this historic collision.


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History


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