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History

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

The IAM in the Korean Conflict 

In June 1950 Communist armies overran South Korea. When President Truman committed U. S. forces to a United Nations "police action" in Asia Hayes and Peterson reacted exactly as Harvey Brown and Emmet Davison did on December 7, 1941--immediately and patriotically. They wrote Truman, endorsing his action and noting that "sixty years of collective bargaining have taught us that there is a point beyond which compromise and inaction mean the loss, not only of the immediate issue but of freedom itself." Local lodges from New York to California soon passed similar resolutions.

The first flush of patriotic ardor cooled somewhat when the Machinist began headlining stories of widespread wartime profiteering. Less than two months after the Hayes-Peterson message to the White House Machinist readers learned that

in the first month of the Communist invasion . . . the index by which BLS economists measure wholesale prices on food and industrial raw materials jumped about 15% . . . Quick killings by middlemen boosted the price of basic raw materials and average of 22.9% on copper, steel, scrap, tin, zinc, lead, rubber, cotton, wool and shellac.
To woo labor support, Truman established a blue ribbon committee of top union leaders to advise the government on questions of labor policy. He appointed Hayes together with Green of the AFL and Murray of the CIO. Over the next couple of years, IAM officers and representatives were recruited for a number of high level government positions. Hayes was named Special Assistant on Manpower to the Assistant Secretary of Defense. GVP Elmer Walker was appointed labor member of the Wage Stabilization Board and GVP Roy Siemiller became Director of the Manpower Division of the Defense Transport Agency. Many GLR's and business reps in such cities as Richmond, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Los Angeles also served on various boards and agencies created to regulate manpower, production and wages.

Despite the federal government's efforts to hold prices in check, inflation spiraled under wartime pressures. By the early '50s a housewife needed $10 for the same groceries she could by for $5 ten years earlier. The spreading gap between wages and prices touched of a number of serious strikes. Despite the conflict in Korea, thousands of workers walked out on the waterfront, in the mines and in the steel industry.*

*Truman tried to seize and operate the steel mills, declaring "The Constitution does not require me to endanger our national safety by letting all the steel mills close down." The Supreme Court ruled such seizure an unconstitutional exercise of executive authority.
Early in the war a shortage of machine tools created a bottleneck in defense production and the federal government gave machine tool manufacturers top priority on men and materials. These manufacturers were also guaranteed liberal profits under a straight cost-plus pricing procedure. Brown and Sharpe, the nation's oldest and biggest producer of machine tools, decided the time was ripe to drive the IAM out of its seventeen plants in Providence, Rhode Island. For three months, spanning much of the summer and fall of 1951, almost 5,000 members of Local Lodge 1088 and 1142 walked the picket line.

Founded in 1833, Brown and Sharpe was viciously and violently anti-union from its earliest beginnings. The firm was founding member of the National Metal Trades Association and for generations routinely called upon NMTA to supply armed union busters whenever union organizers were thought to be in the vicinity. Former IP William Johnston tried to organize Brown and Sharpe at the turn of the century, but the company successfully maintained a strict open shop until 1941 when the workers finally gained union representation under the protection of the Wagner Act. By the time of the Korean War many protections guaranteed by the Wagner Act had been erased by Taft-Hartley.

After three months the company agreed to some minor concessions, apparently confident the strikers would come running back with gratitude. When members of both locals overwhelmingly rejected the offer Al Hayes offered to sit down personally with the company's top negotiators. According to the Machinist he hammered out an agreement which established the highest wage rates in the area and seemed to signal a new acceptance of unionism by the company. However time proved this was not the end of the deep-seated animus against unions at Brown and Sharpe; this was but one more battle in a hundred years' war.

As the presidential campaign between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson peaked in the late summer of 1952 more than 53,000 IAM members at Lockheed and Douglas plants in California picked up picket signs and walked. This first strike at Lockheed became inevitable when 99% of the members participating in a strike vote rejected a company offer of 7 an hour plus a 2 cost-of-living adjustment. According to the Machinist this would have left their wage scaled below rates approved by the Wage Stabilization Board for the other companies in the air frame industry. The walkouts shut Lockheed and Douglas down tight. The various local and district lodges involved kept morale high by setting up committees to insure that pickets were fed and needy families received groceries, clothing and other necessities.

The strike at Lockheed, which began about the time delegates were gathering for the 1952 Grand Lodge Convention in Kansas City, was "recessed" two weeks lager and then settled a week later when the company offered raises ranging from 10 to 16 cents and hour plus a health and welfare plan (which cost Lockheed almost a nickel and hour per employee), two weeks vacation after one year, six days sick leave and six paid holidays. The settlement at Douglas, some weeks later, was roughly similar. Interestingly, while Lockheed members were striking in California, Lockheed members at Marietta, Georgia repelled a CIO raid by a vote of 5,310 to 2,145.

Health and Welfare and Other Fringe Benefits

The late '40s and early '50s were years when unions pioneered the first bare-bone prototypes for the comprehensive health care and pension plans most workers take for granted today. Later generations of workers find it hard to believe that as late as the 1930s and 1940s employees usually received nothing more for their labor than pay for hours actually worked. Such fringes as paid holidays, sick leave, vacations, health and welfare plans and pensions all had to be won by years of patient negotiation or, more often, weeks and months of sacrifice on picket lines.

One of the IAM's earliest health and welfare plans was developed by DBR Lloyd Weber of District 9 in St. Louis in 1949. As reported in the Machinist the plan required an employer payment of $4.85 a month for each IAM member. It provided $1,000 life insurance, plus $1,000 for accidental death, loss of limb or sight, $25.00 a week accident and sick benefits for thirteen weeks, hospitalization of $5.00 a day for thirty-one days plus $100 for special charges and $150 for surgery. Today this seems pitifully inadequate but at the time it represented far more than anything most workers had. More importantly, it provided a base upon which more comprehensive plans could be built. The St. Louis plan became a pattern for other and, as time went on, even better plans developed by districts in Cleveland, New York City, Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul and other centers of IAM strength. By 1951, the GVP's in the Great Lakes and Midwest territories announced that health and welfare plans were in operation and available to all locals and districts under their jurisdiction.

In April 1955 the IAM became the first union to adopt a detailed code governing the establishment and administration of health and welfare plans. A circular letter to all staff and local and district lodge officers laid down strict standards. It warned that any IAM officer of representative who took any kind of payment from and insurance company would be removed. The standard also required lodges to press charges before appropriate state or federal agencies if an insurer or employer acted improperly. Complete records and regular audits were mandated. Investment of welfare fund reserves in the business of the employer or any other party of interest was strictly prohibited. As a result of this early preventative action, health and welfare funds negotiated by the IAM have been remarkably free of corruption of misuse.

Boomer Jones Sings a Song of Labor

For generations IAM officers and members communicated with one another mainly through the pages of the Machinist Journal. As previously noted, the weekly Machinist was launched shortly after the second World War to give a far lager and more diverse membership more sprightly, more frequent and more concise information about the union and its activities.

In the early years the Journal could assume that it was speaking to members emotionally committed to union principles in general and the IAM in particular. By the late '40s the Machinist was addressing a different breed of membership. The rock-ribbed loyalties of the past had been diluted by numbers and diversity. Moreover, by the 1950's a union could not be content merely to keep its own membership informed. A new age of public relations had begun When the Public Relations Society of America was founded in 1948 there were about 100 PR firms in the entire country and fewer than 50 PR departments in all industry. But with new kinds of media and increasing competition for favorable notice corporations and organizations became increasingly concerned with "image". No longer was it enough for a company to make a good product. The age of marketing arrived and with it the need for professionals specializing in advertising and public relations. In the early 1950s more the 1,000 public relations firms sprang up in New York City alone.

Like their counterparts in industry union leaders became conscious of a need to do better in reaching both their own members and the general public. In the 1930's and '40s unions had eliminated most of the worst abuse and exploitation in the workplace. As the post-war generation took over, unions had to "sell" themselves to new members who had little or no memory of the past. Having successfully organized most major industries in smoke-stack America unions had to move against hardcore targets in traditionally hostile areas. In the face of such anti-union roadblocks as Taft-Hartley and right-to-work laws in almost half the states, unions had to try to convert a mass of apathetic members into political activists. Continuously smeared by charges of crime, corruption and communism in the big business press labor turned to public relations to try to show the ways in which unions were necessary and beneficial to society.

Unlike Harvey Brown, who had viewed the IAM as a semi-secret society whose business was of no damn concern to anyone else, Al Hayes realized it was time to open some windows to the world. The responsibility for fostering a more favorable image both in and out of the union fell to Gordon Cole, the energetic and imaginative editor who made the Machinist  one of the most readable and attractively laid out of all institutional publications. Cole was not only ready but eager to expand his audience and spread the union story.

Among other things he began sending the Machinist to every member of Congress and key members of most state legislatures. When Hayes or other IAM officers spoke at universities or before business groups the IAM's public relations department informed the media through timely press releases. Cole also fed upbeat items on bargaining breakthroughs to the press as they developed. He began inviting reporters from the labor press to drop by for interviews, backgrounders or to get acquainted with key IAM people. Later he arranged for local and district lodges to put the Machinist into the libraries of hundreds of high schools. At one time he published a series of "Pamphlets-of-the-Month giving the union's view on timely issues. Searching further for new ideas Cole recalled that the IWW had stirred many a worker's heart with rousing, rollicking tunes and lyrics from their "Little Red Songbook". He took a train to New York where he met with two commercially successful pros from Tin Pan Alley, a composer named Gerald Marks, who had written top pop hits in the '30s and '40s, and a lyricist, Milton Pascal, who had musical credits on Broadway. Both came from union families. Sensing a sincere feeling for the labor movement, Cole contracted with Marks and Pascal for eight original songs for a Machinist songbook.

The tunes were unveiled in songbooks and records. They dealt with issues instantly familiar to working families. One satirized the plight of a worker without a pension, "A Pin For Your Lapel," another laid down a warning to two-faced politicians, "The Guy I Send to Congress," still another spoofed managements too miserly to pay a living wage, "Let's All Shed a Tear." While these and other songs in the set said the right things, they never really caught on. The Machinist faithfully plugged them for months and tried to get local and district lodges to push them on their local radio stations, but they sank with hardly a trace and have long since been forgotten.

Though the effort was worthy it proved only that union songs can't be ground out commercially, that they must spring spontaneously out of the trials and triumphs of those fighting for social and economic justice. That is why those who sing union songs today still sing "Solidarity Forever," "Joe Hill," Pie in the Sky" and the other bittersweet classics of Labor's past struggles.

Cole had somewhat greater success with another non-print media effort. For Labor Day, 1950, he produced a first class radio docu-drama based on the IAM's early beginnings. He called it "Boomer Jones." It was written by one of the top script writers in radio and directed by Mel Ferrer. Major roles were played by three of the top Hollywood stars of that time: William Holden, Marie McDonald, and Brian Donlevy. It was broadcast coast-to-coast on the Mutual network the Sunday before Labor Day. Later it was available on records and for years many IAM lodges used it to introduce the union to new members and the public.

 


Hands Across the Sea,
Moving Toward the Merger

 

History


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of Siouxland Lodge 1426 IAMAW
Greg Enright