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History

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

"Give 'Em Hell Harry"

The IAM jumped into the 1948 political campaign with both feet. The Machinists threw themselves enthusiastically and energetically into the election to reward Harry Truman for vetoing the Taft-Hartley Act. They were determined to defeat Congressional and Senatorial candidates who voted to override the veto. Political pundits and pollsters agreed unanimously that Truman had no chance to be reelected but the IAM, with the rest of organized labor, rolled up its sleeves and set out to beat the odds.

In addition to being a Presidential election year, 1948 was the IAM's 60th Anniversary and a Grand Lodge Convention year. The recently formed Machinists Non-Partisan Political League (MNPL) opened 1948 with a campaign to get members and their families registered for the primaries. This was the first political campaign in which federal law prohibited use of union dues in federal elections. But Harvey Brown assured members they could voluntarily contribute time and money to the MNPL. Originally, MNPL memberships ranged from $2.00 a year for honorary members to $25.00 a year for sponsoring members.

Republicans went into the campaign supremely confident of recapturing the White House. Having swept Congress two years earlier the GOP gleefully looked forward to the prospect of repealing the New Deal. It appeared that anyone they ran would slaughter poor Harry Truman at the polls. All the experts said so.

In June Harvey Brown took the front page of The Machinist for an open letter to the membership. In large, attention-getting type he stressed the urgent need for IAM members to register and play an active role in the election. The following month, the Democratic Party platform cemented union support for Truman by pledging to repeal Taft-Hartley.

The Republican candidate was a former racket-busting district attorney and governor of New York, Thomas E. Dewey. He had a toothbrush mustache and a plastic quality that reminded people of "the little man on the wedding cake." Throughout the campaign he postured and posed and generally acted as though the American people had already given him the keys to the White House. Harry Truman was almost the only person who didn't think Dewey was going to win. Always a scrapper, Truman ignored the polls and went on the attack. In an old-fashioned coast-to-coast campaign he went out and talked to the people directly and bluntly. Truman tore into the Republican Congress as the "awful 80th." He reminded working men and women of the Taft-Hartley Act.

District 751 was battling for survival at Boeing when Truman arrived to speak in Seattle, Hundreds of striking IAM members were in the crowd that jammed the Civic Auditorium to hear him rip the Republicans and the "Do-Nothing 80th Congress." As he launched into a typical rip-snorting attack a voice in the back of the balcony boomed, "Give 'em hell, Harry!" "That's what I'm doing," he said. From then on, wherever he went, from the smallest whistle stop to Madison Square Garden, he was greeted with cheerful shouts of "Give 'em hell, Harry!"

When the Grand Lodge Convention met in Grand Rapids in September, Truman sent warm greetings. The delegates responded with an official endorsement of his candidacy, making it clear, however, that they were not giving a blank check to any political party. As that week's Machinist carefully pointed out, "Mr. Truman is endorsed as an individual, under the traditional Machinists Union's non-partisan policy of supporting its friends and opposing its enemies regardless of their political affiliation."

All through that long summer and right up to the eve of the election, the nation's press missed the real story of the campaign. Newspapers confidently predicted that Truman would lose votes in the South to Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond and in the North to Progressive Henry Wallace. Editors and reporters failed to notice that in thousands of union halls the Machinists and other unions were quietly registering and mobilizing labor's vote. Day after day the daily press kept repeating itself "Big Victory Seen For Dewey" and "Gallup Poll Forecasts Victory By Dewey" and "Dewey Sweep Forecast." When The Machinist reported "Truman Closing Gap" in late October many people thought it was merely whistling in the dark.

The results justified the IAM's first all-out, nationwide leap into politics. Truman scored the most stunning upset in history. Labor's vote not only returned him to the White House, but changed the complexion of Congress. Of 212 House candidates endorsed by the MNPL, 160 were elected. Of seventeen Senate hopefuls receiving MNPL support, fourteen took office. In recognition of the role machinists played in Truman's reelection, the IAM was one of two unions invited to march in the presidential parade on Inauguration Day. On January 20, 1949 an elaborate float depicting various aspects of the machinists trade and manned by ten journeymen from Lodge 174 rolled proudly down Pennsylvania Avenue and past the official viewing stand.

After the hoopla and the hollering died down, the labor movement learned once again the vast chasm between promise and performance. Despite organized labor's delivery of the vote in the 1948 election, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate were unable  (or unwilling) to deliver on their party's platform pledge to repeal Taft-Hartley. With some later amendments it remains the basic law of industrial relations in America to this day.

The Flying Billboard

As part of the industry-wide organizing campaign begun on the airlines in 1945 the Executive Council gave IAM representatives an organizing tool no other union had ever had. It was a twin-engine, five-seat Cessna which whisked organizers rapidly from one airport to another and ferried them into landing field areas that might otherwise have been out of reach. For two-and-a-half years the IAM's plane played a major role in building the IAM's membership at landing strips throughout the nation.

The pilot was a Grand Lodge Representative named Claude Hauser. He was a life-long trade unionist as well as a journeyman aircraft mechanic. He learned to fly while working on ground crews in the Army during World War I and perfected this skill as a pilot in the barnstorming '20's. The IAM's plane became known to the members at "The Flying Billboard." It served a wide range of functions including organizing, picketing and moving representatives rapidly to wherever trouble was brewing. In one organizing campaign, for example the boss at a ground service facility called the employees together to tell them why they didn't need a union. With the wind in his favor. Hauser buzzed the meeting and tossed out a batch of "Vote IAM" leaflets. They glided gracefully down to the delighted captive audience. This attack from the air totally disconcerted the employer mouthpiece and the workers voted overwhelmingly for IAM representation.

When the IAM conducted an early strike against National Airlines, management tried to operated with scab mechanics. The "Flying Billboard" went from airfield to airfield to let airline passengers know: "National Airlines On Strike, Skilled Machinists Not Working." The plane was put up for sale in November, 1948 when the IAM's membership in the airline industry became too large and far-flung to be served by a five-seat twin-engine aircraft.

Rewriting and Righting the Ritual

As the decade of the 1940's wound down it became increasingly impossible to continue sweeping the issue of "color" under the rug. A controversy boiled up at the 1940 Convention in Cleveland when delegates from New York and Pennsylvania lodges reported that recent legislation in their states made discrimination by unions punishable by fines and prison sentences. In a debate more emotional than rational the delegates argued on the issue for most of an entire day.

Some suggested removing the work "white" in the ritual only in states where discrimination was prohibited by law. Others wanted to set up "auxiliaries" for black members. Still others supported a proposal that each lodge be free to decide the question of color for itself. Most of those who spoke in favor of keeping the work "white" in the ritual were from Southern lodges. The strongest demand for change came from members in the East and on the West Coast. But there were exceptions on both sides.

The issues that divided the delegates have long since been settled by legislation and litigation. But even later than the 1940's much of the country was still subject to "separate but equal" laws and Jim Crow traditions. While legislators in "liberal" states like Pennsylvania and New York might prohibit discrimination by unions, they saw no contradiction or hypocrisy in condoning and even financing lily-white regiments in their National Guard. And even in the 1980's issues such as school desegregation continue to trouble the nation.

Ironically, even as the delegates debated most knew the ritual was often honored more in the breach than in reality By 1940 IAM membership included not only blacks, but browns, reds and yellows. GST Emmet Davison, a born and bred Southerner, tried to cool emotions by pointing out that no one at Grand Lodge really knew the color of members of lodges chartered in Puerto Rico, Hawaii or along the Mexican border. He gently reminded the delegates that lodges in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, San Francisco and other Northern cities were known to have black members. Such arguments were fruitless and the proposal to strike the work "white" from the ritual was defeated by voice vote.

The issue of race came back even more strongly at the 1945 Convention in New York. For the first time the Ritual Committee recommended concurrence with a resolution to delete all references to race and color form the membership obligation. Again the delegates went to the mat in two long and exhausting days of supercharged argument. Delegates from aircraft lodges cited specific instances in which CIO unions used the race issue to get blacks to vote against the IAM in representation elections. and more states, including Connecticut, Massachusetts an California, had either enacted or were ready to pass new laws banning discrimination. With these new arguments and added pressures the issue went to a roll call vote for the first time. Though the vote was off the record retired GVP George Watkins recalls that out of more the 4,000 votes cast the color bar was barely sustained by 200 votes.

The issue came before the delegates for the last time at the Grand Rapids Convention in 1948. By then fair employment practice regulations were becoming commonplace not only in states, but in cities and counties as well. Moreover, various federal agencies, including the NLRB, were questioning the IAM's right to use their services while discriminating against some citizens. In fact, a trial examiner in Virginia and another in Texas ruled that since the IAM did not admit blacks to membership it had no standing to petition for bargaining units in which blacks were employed. The full Board later rejected this interpretation on the ground that the record failed to show the IAM would not represent members and non-members equally. But the initial rulings by these trial examiners were enough to move the Executive Council to act. At their Fall, 1947, meeting a majority of the GVP's decided that excluding blacks was potentially harmful to the membership as a whole. In early December they issues Official Circular 487 explaining that because of recent state and federal legislation a new ritual was being substituted for the old.

When the delegates reached Grand Rapids some of the old die-hards were prepared to challenge the Council's official circular. Again the Ritual Committee recommended deletion of the word "white". This time debate was briefer and more reasoned than at the two preceding conventions. A business representative form Connecticut told of being called to testify before that state's Fair Employment Practices Commission. he reported that he responded to charges of IAM discrimination by pointing out that his lodge not only accepted black members from the time it was chartered but had black officers who were very helpful in organizing.

After some huffing and puffing by a few bitter-enders the Council's action deleting the work "white" was ratified by voice vote. The 1948 Grand Lodge Convention finally righted the wrong that was slipped into the ritual when the color bar was removed from the IAM Constitution.


Reds, Witch Hunts and the IAM
The Schrank Case
Harvey Brown Meets Mandatory Retirement

 

History


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