"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
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
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
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
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
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.