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 History

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

The Oregon Story

When Douglas McKay announced that he was returning to Oregon to run for the U.S. Senate on the Republican ticket in 1956, it was generally assumed he would win in a walk. Oregon was then one of the most conservative states in the country. In a postwar best seller called Inside U.S.A., John Gunther characterized Oregon as "the Vermont of the West." For generations a Republican nomination in Oregon was tantamount to election. Oregon's labor movement was both small and politically ineffectual. Most unions accepted what they felt they could not change. Some, like the building trades, played ball in exchange for a share of the state's public works projects.

As former governor, McKay not only enjoyed instant name recognition within the state, but his cabinet status made him a national celebrity. To top it off he would run with Eisenhower at the head of the national ticket. He had everything going for him. The only cloud on the horizon, the Oregon State Council of Machinists, appeared no bigger than a man's hand.

McKay's arrogance in refusing to negotiate with his employees was decisive in crystallizing IAM opposition to his 1956 Senatorial bid. But other factors were also at work. The election of a liberal Republican, Wayne Morse, in 1950 to the U.S. Senate was the first crack in the state's solid conservative front. The reactionaries who controlled the party machinery mobilized to unseat Morse in 1956.* They would have surely succeeded but for the labor movement. At a meeting of the Oregon State Machinists Council, shortly after the 1952 Grand Lodge Convention in Kansas City, a small group of IAM business representatives agreed that re-election of the most pro-labor Senator in Oregon history would depend on the votes of working people. Recognizing that getting those votes to the polls on election day would take more planning, organization and hard work than they had ever given to politics in the past, they rejuvenated the state MNPL, which became dormant after Truman's 1948 victory failed to produce desired amendments in Taft-Hartley.

*The political Neanderthals drove Morse out of the party in 1952. He became an Independent and shifted to the Democratic side of the Senate in 1955.
In challenging the conservative Republican power structure, the Oregon MNPL began with no money, no voter lists and no experience in political pamphleteering. However, the Republican-controlled legislature gave them a good issue in 1953 when it enacted one of the most restrictive anti-picketing laws in the country. Oregon's unionists initially viewed the anti-picketing statute as a disaster, but later realized it was the catalyst needed to ignite a political turnaround. As a result of the new law a number of Oregon unions formed a United Labor Committee and targeted one Portland district for an experiment in political action in the 1954 campaign.

To help elect labor-endorsed candidates for federal and state offices rank-and-file union members were recruited for such committees as primary screening, finance, voter registration, get-out-the-vote, car pool, and "blitz" distribution. Most of these rank-and-file members had no previous experience in political campaigning. When some building trades leaders hesitated to join in, for fear of jeopardizing their cozy arrangements with the Republican power structure, the IAM representatives decided to bypass them and go straight to their members. A "blitz" campaign was unleashed in the final weeks. More than 100 volunteer crews blanketed 60,000 homes in 330 precincts with brochures and sample ballots for each of the candidates. Other unionists distributed some 30,000 pieces of campaign literature outside factories, stores and public buildings. The outcome not only stunned the press and politicians but even surprised many union members. They helped to elect the first Democratic Senator from Oregon in forty years, the first Democratic candidate to Congress in eighteen years and the first Democratic labor commissioner ever.

By 1956 the IAM was ready for a statewide effort. Early in the campaign an MNPL Committee sat down with Morse's campaign manager and talked strategy. Again committees of rank-and-filers were set up throughout the state. And again hundreds of IAM members and their wives assembled sample ballots and other pieces of literature, 1,316,000 pieces in all, into packets for distribution crews. Hundreds of others dropped these packets on more than 135,000 doorsteps, covering more than 80% of the precincts.

McKay realized his union-busting in Salem would cost him votes in working families. Seeking to limit the damage, he denied any connection with the agency, stating he had sold the company to his sons-in-law. The IAM responded by producing records proving McKay was majority shareholder when the union was busted.

Three weeks before the election the MNPL and the State Labor Council blanketed the state with 250,000 fact sheets on the McKay strike. A rank-and-file member of Local Lodge 1506 penned an eloquent and devastating account of the strike that was widely read in working class homes. It began, simply, "This is the story of how Douglas McKay wrecked our union." It domolished McKay's claim that he had nothing to do with the wrecking job. "Yes," this worker said, "McKay was 3,000 miles away in Washington. But I know he could have saved me fourteen months on the picket line by making just one phone call. He could have done it by saying just five words: 'Deal fairly with the union.' Instead he called our leaders 'goons'."

In the presidential election of 1956, Eisenhower swept Oregon together with most of the nation. But the campaign that began with a small meeting of IAM business representatives in 1952 paid off, after four years of dedication, belief and hard work, with what The Machinist called "Labor's Sweetest Victory." While Eisenhower carried the state by 77,000 votes, Morse outpolled McKay by 60,000. Oregon was no longer the Vermont of the West. In addition to Morse, the Oregon labor movement elected three members of Congress, a Governor, a Democratic majority in the legislature and a former union president as mayor of Portland. As the result of that historic 1952 meeting of a small band of IAM stalwarts, politics in Oregon would never be quite the same again.

The Ivory Tower

When the Grand Lodge moved into the newly constructed Machinists Building on Mt. Vernon Place in 1920, Journal editor Hewitt described it as "beautiful and commodious" and "one of the finest and most modern office buildings in Washington." By the mid-1950's these quarters were clearly inadequate, too cramped and crowded for the many more employees needed to serve a far larger membership. Hallways that may have been considered "commodious" in 1920 now seemed dark and narrow. Offices that Hewitt may have thought beautiful became dingy with age. The once respectable neighborhood declined during the depression and became rundown and shabby after World War II. As prostitutes and pimps began to move closer Al Hayes looked around Washington for a more suitable site. In 1954 Hayes purchased a prime corner lot on Connecticut Avenue, Washington's most fashionable commercial thoroughfare. It was with easy walking distance of the White House and was once the site of the British Embassy.

In December, 1954 ground was broken for a new ten-story building and in March 1956, fifteen months later, the staff moved into the new quarters. Teh new Machinists Building included such amenities as an underground garage, an auditorium seating 250, a wood paneled Executive Council room and even softly piped-in music fro stenographers to type by. Compared with the old building it was indeed sumptuous and, as expected, some members and even a few representatives sometimes refer to it as "The Ivory Tower," usually in jest but often disparagingly. Union-built, the new headquarters had the lowest construction cost per square foot of any modern office building in Washington and by the 1980's was probably worth twenty or thirty times the original cost.

Lloyd Weber--The Spirit of St. Louis

The 1956 Grand Lodge Convention in San Francisco opened on a somber note. Al Hayes announced that Harvey Brown died that morning. The previous week the organization was stunned by a loss that far more directly affected most delegates. Lloyd Weber, long-time chairman of the Law Committee and veteran directing business representative of District 9, died in St. Louis. When he succeeded Elmer Walker as directing business representative. in 1937, District 9 had only 2,500 members. In less than 20 years Weber built the district into one of the most vigorous, dynamic and democratic regional labor units in the country. While he was DBR, Weber acquired a fine headquarter building in uptown St. Louis, complete with offices, meeting halls and a tap room. He also pioneered one of the best union-sponsored health and welfare plans in the union..

Weber grew up in the "Kerry Patch", an Irish working class neighborhood and became a fervent trade unionist through a combination of on-the-job experience and hours spent in the reading rooms of the city's public libraries. His trade union career began in the worst year of the depression, 1933, when he helped organize Cutting Die Lodge 787. By the time he died he not only chaired the Law Committee, but also was the moving force in the founding of both the Missouri State Council and Midwest Conference of Machinists. During the war years Weber served as worker representative on a number of federal boards and agencies. His friends in public life included mayors, governors and senators. But no matter how easily he hobnobbed with politicians, he remained a plain-spoken trade unionist to the end. In a long and heart-felt tribute, the St. Louis Labor Tribune described him :as a man who thought and talked straight" and who deeply believed in the members' "right to know." Although Weber pioneered many of the fringe benefits enjoyed by District 9 members, he often said that if he had achieved nothing more than the district's health and welfare program he would have considered his life in the labor movement worthwhile.

Statements and resolutions recorded in the Convention Proceedings clearly indicate the void created by Weber's passing. More importantly he left a legacy that is still felt. For many years old-timers in District 9 spoke of him with reverence, often recalling the early days when he walked the workers' neighborhoods, literally organizing from door to door. Fortunately, Weber's legacy both in St. Louis and on the Law Committee, was carried on for many years by his chief lieutenant and successor as DBR, Larry Conners.

The Selling of a Strike Fund

A number of events made the San Francisco Convention memorable. For the first time a major presidential candidate came to directly address and IAM Convention. Adlai Stevenson, once more running against Eisenhower, received thunderous applause when he blasted "leap year liberalism" and noted that "every four years the Republican candidates talk like Democrats." Another significant first was a group picture of black delegates that appeared in The Machinist. It included Herman Blackshear, Miami; F. T. Sanders, Memphis; A. F. Holmes, Atlanta; Henry Langdon, Montreal; Marcus Todd, Santa Monica and Julius Moon, Herb Ward, Stephen Glass and John Cummings, Los Angles.

In his keynote address Hayes put the convention's most controversial issue squarely before the delegates when he urged establishment of a strike fund. Historically the Grand Lodge paid strike benefits directly from the general fund. Weekly benefits were minimal--$5.00 in the early years and still as little as $10.00 in the 1950's--but could push the organization to the edge of bankruptcy during prolonged strikes and were a steady drain on the general fund even in the best of times. Arguing the time had come to set up a separate strike fund, Hayes pointed out that in the first four months of 1956 alone strike donations pointed out that in the first four months of 1956 alone strike donations from the general fund devoured almost 7% of the IAM's total assets. He claimed that with a separate strike fund the IAM could pay benefits more in line with the modern cost-of-living and "not based on a cost-of-living set some thirty odd years ago."

When the Law Committee reported on the wide range of proposals sent in by almost 100 lodges, it recommended a weekly strike benefit of $35 payable from a separate "Grand Lodge Defense and Emergency Fund." The four-hour debate leading up to a roll call vote clearly indicated that most of the delegates yearned for some method of assuring a more adequate system of strike benefits. Many who spoke in favor pointed to lost strikes and lodges that ended up broke because the international lacked a strike fund. Some pointed enviously to unions that could pay decent strike benefits because they did not  hesitate to assess high monthly per capita. Others argued that if employers knew IAM members were backed by a solvent strike fund the result would be fewer, not more, strikes. And, of course, the traditional appeals were made to the spirit of the "Fighting Machinists."

The debate proved most delegates wanted a strike fund that could pay decent weekly benefits. The rub was in trying to figure out how to finance it. The Law Committee's proposal included raising minimum monthly dues from $2.00 to $4.00 and increasing per capita 70, of which 50 would be earmarked for the strike fund. Don Burrows, the powerful DBR of the huge automotive lodge in Chicago, reminded the convention that the membership had voted down $3.00 minimum dues following the Kansas City Convention. He bluntly suggested it wasn't likely they would accept $4.00 minimum dues four years later.

Burrows was right. Though the Law Committee's proposal carried handily in a roll call of the delegates--3,770 to 2,635--it was vetoed a few months later--73,000 to 70,000--in a referendum of the membership. A year later the Executive Council resubmitted the proposal to the membership without the $4.00 minimum dues. The members then went along, voting 110,000 to 65,000, to authorize a 70 per capita increase of which 50 was earmarked for a separate strike fund which would pay weekly benefits of $35.


Jettisoning the Journal
Checking the Right-to-Work Plague

 

History


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