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History

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

The Expanding Role of Women

Rosie the Riveter was extolled in song and speech during World War II. But with the war over women were expected to go back to the kitchen and leave the real, wage-earning work to the men. Most women returned and most were clearly content, at least at first, to slip back into the role of wife and mother. But war and its paychecks changed traditional attitudes. Many women soon missed the freedom and independence that came with money of their own. And despite popular misconceptions relatively few women worked merely for "pin money." Studies by the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor proved what most women already knew: most who work do so to support themselves or their dependents. In fact women have always worked in fields or factories. Records indicate that almost 60% of all hands in the textile mills of early New England were female. From Mother Jones tot he multitudes of operators who toiled for Ma Bell, women have been among the most militant of trade unionists. Women made up the majority of woolen mill strikers in Lawrence in 1912. The banner carried by a young girl striker inspired this verse by a poet who saw it:

Our lives shall not be sweated
From birth until life closes
Hearts starve as well as bodies
Give us bread, but give us roses
Though women were admitted to IAM membership almost from the beginning the union, like the machinist trade, remained almost exclusively male for many years. Until World War II awareness of women in IAM affairs was pretty much limited to social notes sent to the Journal by various ladies' auxiliaries.

The Boeing strike in 1947 foretold the larger significance of women in the IAM in the years ahead. When the strike began women made up 13% of District 751's bargaining unit. When the first picket line was thrown up, shortly after midnight, women from the second shift put down their tools and picked up their picket signs. Within a few days a member to the shop committee, Bernadine O'Sullivan, took charge of a special morale-building detail. With the help of a volunteer squad of women members she made sure the pickets were supplied with hot coffee and arranged for house calls to buck up members thought to be wavering. She and other women passed out leaflets on the street to explain strike issues to the public. O'Sullivan and her committee also took over much of the new clerical work that was piled on the staff at the union office. According to Tom Tippett "The women were excellent pickets, as effective as the men, and in special situations they were even more effective."

By the summer of 1951 The Machinist saluted the increasing importance of women in the IAM. It reported that 376 women held elected offices in local lodges and thousands of others were active as stewards and committee members. In words and pictures the Machinist detailed the accomplishments of three outstanding women members in District 9, St. Louis--Mary Helen Krausz, recording secretary of Lodge 1345; Mamie Parker, trustee of Lodge 1654 and Doris King, shop steward and bargaining committee member of Lodge 1345. Other lodges soon bombarded Gordon Cole with pictures and stories lauding their women members. These included District 776 (Gertrude Archer), District 727 (Irene Myers, Josephine Harmer, Lottie Milliken, Marian Johnson, Dorothy Enlow) and District 751 (Alice Benn, Evida Johnson and the indefatigable Bernadine O'Sullivan).

In 1952 Martha Olinger became the first woman to head an IAM district when she was elected president of the 3,000-member District 101 in Rockford, Illinois. In terms which feminists would undoubtedly consider offensively patronizing today The Machinist described Sister Olinger as "vivacious, slender, blue-eyed and America' best dressed machinist." Stories detailing the exploits of women members continued throughout the decade, including one on Ada Messerschmidt, "mother of four", who was named organizer of the month by District 720 at Douglas after turning in fifty-four membership applications.

While increasing numbers of women members strengthened the union, collective bargaining created new rights and protections for women in the work place. In March 1955, for example, The Machinist reported on a grievance at the American Can Company in Geneva, New York. Local Lodge 1838 charged that one of  its members, Eunice Morrow, had been refused the job of production tracer because of her sex, being passed over for promotion by a male employee with less seniority. The Machinist reported that after the local lodge processed her grievance Sister Morrow was promoted and received $892 in back pay. The GLR handling the case, Clark Goodrich, termed the outcome "an important step forward in our fight to win equal jobs rights for women in industry."

Shortly thereafter, women provided the IAM's margin of victory in a representation election at the Clary Corporation in San Gabriel, California. An account in The Machinist reported the women voted for IAM representation because they were denied the same pay and job classifications as men doing the same work. The principle of equal pay for equal work had not yet been established in the legislatures or the courts and for some years equal pay had to be enforced by unions if it was to be enforced at all.

The IAM and the Breakup of the UE

Following the sharp declines that took place in the late '40's the IAM's membership took off again in the early '50's, climbing from 498,000 in January 1950 to 810,000 by February 1954. The growth was due chiefly to the buildup of military production needed for the "police action" in Korea. But after a truce was negotiated in June 1953, the stage was set for another postwar membership decline. From February1954 to February 1955 membership fell form 810,000 to 751,000. Undoubtedly, the loss would have been even greater except for an influx of new locals and members from the rapidly disintegrating United Electrical Workers Union (UE).

When James Matles and William Mauseth left the IAM in 1937 they took more than 10,000 members with them into the UE. In the early 1950's the tables were turned when great numbers of workers left the UE not only for the IAM but for the IUE, the UAW, the Steelworkers and the IBEW. 

While the UE was (and remains even today) one of the most militant unions on the North American continent, some of its leaders were more devoted to Moscow than to their members. During the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact in the early 1940's the UE officers refused to sign the non-Communist affidavits required by Taft-Hartley,* some locals looked for ways to rid themselves of Communist domination. In Camden, New Jersey a large local of RCA employees broke away, stating "The UE has followed every twist and turn of the Communist Party since 1940." In Pittsburgh anti-Communist forces at Westinghouse plants developed a manual on "How To Decontrol Your Union of Communists." It advised:

Place your people carefully in the meeting hall. Try to have a good-sized bunch down front . . . Place others on each side and place a nice contingent in the back. This is called the Diamond, the oldest meeting strategy in the world. It makes it look as if the entire meeting is filled with your people.
*These were affidavits which New York State Council of Machinists President Robert Schrank criticized Harvey Brown and the IAM Executive Council for signing.
In the late '40's Phil Murray decided to rid the CIO of the dozen or so unions controlled by Communists. The UE was by far the largest of these, claiming 600,000 members engaged in manufacturing everything from aircraft and marine equipment to gauges, aerial cameras, motors and munitions. The UE was the dominant union in electrical manufacturing.

Eight Millionaires and a Plumber

In the final days of Eisenhower's 1952 campaign for the presidency he appealed directly for labor's vote by promising he would "defend the working man against any action to destroy his union or his rights." And when he named Martin Durkin, president of the Plumbers, Secretary of Labor, it appeared he might even mean what he said. however all the other members of the cabinet came straight out of the executive suites. Reporters soon started to describe Eisenhower's cabinet as "eight millionaires and a plumber" and Adlai Stevenson suggested that since Truman's Administration had been called the "Fair Deal," Eisenhower's should be named the "Big Deal."

The IAM supported Stevenson throughout the campaign. Yet there is little doubt that many working men and women liked Ike. His enormous popularity as supreme commander in Europe strengthened his credibility when he made statements like "Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions . . . I have no use for those who . . . dream of spinning the clock back to days when organized labor was huddled, almost as a helpless mass."

Despite this disclaimer Ike appointed just such a reactionary to his cabinet. Interior Secretary Douglas McKay owned the largest Chevrolet-Cadillac agency in Oregon. His mechanics had been represented by Local Lodge 1506 in Salem since 1948. When negotiations for a new contract opened in March, 1954, the union asked for no more than wages, hours and conditions of work already in effect in organized auto dealer shops in Portland just forty-seven miles away. The McKay management flatly refused, demanding instead that the workers surrender the union shop, seniority rights, overtime rules, forty-hour week guarantee, three paid holidays and other benefits which had long been in the contract. Hoping to avoid a strike the local negotiated patiently for fourteen months. To break the impasse Al Hayes went to see McKay at the Interior Department. Hayes suggested impartial arbitration but McKay curtly refused. Throughout the negotiations the company's response was simply "take it or leave it!" Some of the members had worked for McKay for thirty years and since they didn't want to strike the lodge finally offered to settle for a simple renewal of the old contract. The company countered by demanding the mechanics accept a compensation system based on commissions."

The objective was to break the union. Later it was learned that McKay was the front runner for a wider attack. Before the fight was over two other unionized dealers in Salem also forced their mechanics into the street. The strike that followed was bitter and long-lasting. As a former mayor of Salem and governor of the state McKay's political clout became obvious when the courts limited the number of pickets at each entrance and the police swarmed in to enforce court orders. Nevertheless the state supreme court rejected the dealers' demand for and injunction prohibiting strikers form taking down license numbers of cars driven through the picket lines. Overturning a twenty year-old ruling, the judges said that recording license plates was not coercive since the letters sent to customers merely explained the strike and were free of any threat of intimidation.

The strike continued for fourteen months, but McKay finally broke the union with scabs and strikebreakers. With a fortune of millions he was able to starve out his workers and beat the union picket line. But when he ran for the U.S. Senate the following year the IAM was waiting at the polls.


The Oregon Story
The Ivory Tower
Lloyd Weber--The Spirit of St. Louis
The Selling of a Strike Fund

 

History


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