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History

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

Back to the Barricades

With the labor movement reeling under daily attacks by the McClellan Committee the National Right-to-Work Committee prepared to launch its biggest offensive in January 1958. Fresh from success in Indiana, right-to-work strategists apparently believed other industrial states were ready for compulsory open shop legislation.

Right-to-work bills were introduced in two state legislatures--Delaware and Kentucky--but the real push was made in right-to-work referendums submitted to the voters in five states. Two of these states, Idaho and Kansas, were logical targets, being agricultural states in the Midwest where right-to-work usually prevailed. But the other three, California, Ohio and Washington, were traditional centers of union strength. If the National Right-to-Work Committee could win in these states they could probably win anywhere.

At first blush the revival of the right-to-work campaign in Washington seemed to defy logic. Only two years earlier, in the 1956 election, the labor movement buried Right-to-Work Initiative 198 by more than two to one. But in 1956 Boeing was more or less  neutral. While some of the company's top people were known to favor 198, President William Allen did not lend Boeing enormous prestige to the initiative. In 1958 he ordered foremen and supervisors to collect signatures needed to put the issue on the ballot, contributed $35,000 to a "Minute Man" radio campaign and saturated the state with company-sponsored newspaper, TV and radio advertising supporting right to work. Allen's turnaround carried a lot of weight in Washington. Another factor was the difference in the election itself. Since 1958 was an off-year, the presidency was not at stake and fewer voters were expected at the polls. One of the truisms of American politics is the smaller the turnout, the more conservative the vote. The Right-to-Work Committee was banking on a small vote.

In Ohio the Machinists' Council was tipped off early by a series of ads in various campus newspapers around the state. The State Right-to-Work Committee was offering $100 a week for "Neat, personable college men to travel in small groups with supervisor." More than 150 college students were hired at $18 a day to collect the signatures needed to put a right-to-work proposition on the ballot. The anti-labor forces had no trouble raising money. Before the year was over the Ohio State Chamber of Commerce spent more than $500,000 in an all-out push for a compulsory open shop law.

In California the Los Angeles Times noted that the supporters of the right-to-work proposition "were cloaked in anonymity. The . . . birth place was a post office box from which it finally emerged furtively." Though furtive the sponsors were well supplied with cash. In the drive to get enough signatures to put the question to the voters, solicitors were paid piece-work--40¢ a name. A number of the paid solicitors were later arrested and charged with forging signatures.

The National Republican Policy Committee unveiled its campaign strategy early in the year by releasing a 216-page election manual titled "The Labor Bosses--America's Third Party." This manual, a frank declaration of war on the American labor movement, was sent to thousands of precinct workers throughout the country. Certain in their belief that the McClellan hearings had soured the public on all unions, Republican strategists counseled GOP candidates to aim their campaign rhetoric at "big unions." A number of leading politicians followed this advice into political oblivion.

In California the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor were on opposite sides of the right-to-work issue. As attorney general, the Democrat, Pat Brown, refused to okay the "right-to-work" title in the California initiative. The Republican candidate, William Knowland, was frankly anti-union. In floor debates on Landrum-Griffin in the Senate he teamed up with Barry Goldwater of Arizona to make the Senate version of the law as tough on unions as possible. As minority leader in the Senate and publisher of the Oakland Tribune, Knowland was a political powerhouse. Winning the governorship of California in 1958 would make him a serious candidate for the Republican presidential nominations in 1960. In the anti-union climate created by the McClellan Committee, Knowland planned to ride the right-to-work issue into the White House.

In Ohio, the Republican candidate, John Bricker, was a pompous, Northern Senator Claghorn. In a classic study of postwar America, Inside USA, author John Gunther wrote that intellectually Bricker was ". . . like interstellar space--a vast vacuum occasionally crossed by homeless, wandering clichés." Nevertheless Bricker was a three-term governor, had run as vice president on the Dewey ticket in 1944 and was generally considered unbeatable in Ohio. He, too, hitched this wagon to the right-to-work star.

As the campaign heated up on the West Coast the California Conference adopted many of the techniques that proved successful in Washington in 1956. IAM members festooned their cars with bumper stickers urging voters to reject the right-to-work proposition. Signs and billboards repeated the message along the highways.

Bit aerospace, automotive and air transport districts from San Diego to San Francisco sponsored rallies and organized committees to insure that every IAM member was registered to vote. Like the Washington State Council of Machinists, the California Conference published and distributed thousands of pamphlets exposing the right-to-work fraud. GVP Roy Brown stumped the state, rallying union members with stem-winding denunciations of the compulsory open shop.

In the midst of the right-to-work battle in California, three members of Lodge 727E betrayed the obligation they took when they were initiated into IAM membership by agreeing to serve as a dummy front for the California Right-to-Work Committee. All three once served as local lodge officers and district delegates but joined the right-to-work cause when defeated for re-election.* Calling themselves Union Volunteers for Voluntary Unionism the three clearly identified themselves as IAM members and were highly visible mouthpieces for the compulsory open shop over radio, TV and in the newspapers.

*Proving that the old-time financial pirate known a Jay Gould was not far off the mark when he boasted that the could always hire half of the working class to kill the other half.
Their lodge brought charges against them and they were expelled by membership vote for conduct unbecoming a member. This did not affect their employment or rights on the job and some old-time members recall the company seemed to give them preferential treatment thereafter. Nevertheless the press raged and Representative Phil Landrum of Georgia blasted Hayes during a special hearing of the House Labor Subcommittee for denying the right of union members to express views in conflict with union policies. Carrying bitter memories of times when unions were as directly  threatened by saboteurs and spies in the union hall as by club-carrying gorillas on the picket line, Hayes bluntly told Landrum that while these right-to-work advocates had a right to try to destroy the union, they did not have a right to remain members while doing so.*
*Among other things the Landrum-Griffin Act severely limited a union's right to determine its own membership. The courts eventually overturned the lodge's order of expulsion.
In Ohio the labor movement carried out a record-breaking voter registration drive throughout the state. More than 1,000 members and their wives turned out in July for a meeting chaired by DBR Matt DeMore of District 54 in Cleveland. Many of the wives were recruited for a drive to get every IAM member registered and to the polls on election day. Scores of volunteers checked the name of every union member against voter lists in a monumental state-wide drive to contact every union member at least once before registration closed. Those not registered were immediately called and told where and when registration was open. Rides were offered to anyone needing transportation to register or get to the polls on election day. Follow ups were made in person or by mail. As election day neared union members handed grocers, clothiers, dry-cleaners and other merchants a little printed message reminding them "this purchase was made with union-negotiated dollars."

On election day the result was a catastrophe for Republicans and the right-to-work advocates. The Machinist noted "the Republican Party rode the anti-union issue to bitter defeat." When the votes were counted Knowland's campaign for governor in California lay in ashes along with his hope for a presidential nomination. In Ohio the previously unbeatable Bricker was buried under a blizzard of union votes.

Record numbers of voters turned out all over the country. They rejected right-to-work by more than two to one in Ohio, almost tow to one in California and Washington and three to two in Colorado.

Considered a sure winner in Idaho, political experts were stunned when labor managed to defeat right-to-work by some 5,000 votes. The compulsory open shop forces salvaged a win in predominately agricultural Kansas, but the Cleveland Plain Dealer summed up labor's sweep nationwide with its post-mortem of the Ohio results: "The voters rejected right-to-work by the biggest margin ever recorded on any issue on the ballot in the state's history, The results exceeded the wildest hopes of union members."

Though not directly on the ballot in Indiana in 1958, right-to-work was the crucial issue for union members in the primary and general elections. After the law was rushed through, in the hysteria of the 1957 tragedy in Princeton, union activists wasted no time in laying the groundwork for repeal. Every union began with its own members. The IAM, UAW, Steelworkers, Teamsters, building trades, CWA, Mine Workers and others coordinated a local-by-local, shop-by-shop, door-to-door voter registration drive. Comparisons of wages and working conditions between unionized and right-to-work states were distributed to newspapers, ministers, high schools and colleges. Union speakers fanned out, speaking to civic and social action groups and demanding time on radio and TV Union leaders screened political candidates for every elected office from dog-catcher to Governor.

The 1958 election in Indiana was the kick-off for one of the greatest political turnarounds of all time. The labor movement led a record outpouring of union voters to the polls. By defeating thirty-two of forty-six right-to-work supporters, union-endorsed candidates became a majority in the lower House and narrowly missed taking over the state Senate. Indiana's Congressional delegation, which consisted of nine Republicans and two Democrats in 1956, became nine Democrats and two Republicans in 1958. The labor-supported mayor of Evansville, Vance Hartke, wiped out Governor Handley in the race for the United Sates Senate. The process begun in 1958 culminated with a clean sweep and repeal of Indiana's compulsory open shop law in 1964.

The election of 1958 proved America was not ready for legislated union-busting. Despite the corrupt creeps who crawled out from under rocks turned over by the McClellan Committee, American voters recognized the need for strong unions as a counterbalance to powerful corporations.


Elmer E. Walker
1959-1965

Elmer Walker--The Bull of the Woods

After serving as GST for fifteen years Eric Peterson retired at the constitutionally mandated age of sixty-five in 1959. When Peterson was initiated almost fifty years earlier the IAM was a secret order. Information about local lodge membership and finances was not given out toe the government or anyone else. By the time Peterson retired the records and internal operations of local and international unions were open to annual inspection by a multitude of federal and state agencies under Taft-Hartley, health and welfare fund regulations and tax legislation. To help local lodge financial officers shoulder the new burdens and responsibilities imposed by law Peterson developed a Financial Secretaries' Reference Manual and pioneered a union-wide training program for the mostly unpaid financial officers who serve voluntarily at the local level. These and other innovations were continued and improved in later years.

Peterson's successor, Elmer Walker, was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1900, and began his machinist apprenticeship with Swift and Company at age sixteen. After joining Local Lodge 121 in East St. Louis in 1918, Walker knocked around the Midwest as a tool and die maker for the next twelve years. When the Depression hit, he returned to East St. Louis and was soon elected president of Lodge 121. As he sometimes proudly told friends in later years he had nothing to offer the union in the beginning except two big fists and a willingness to use them. Evidently that was enough to get him elected as one of District 9's two business representatives in February 1934. His first report to the Journal, six months later, announced a union shop agreement with the General Fire Truck Corporation.

In 1936 Walker made his mark as a member of the Resolutions Committee at the Grand Lodge Convention in Milwaukee. A few months after the convention, the Resolutions Committee secretary, Pat King, submitted a  light-hearted account of his adventures as a delegate to the Journal.* He told how the committee decided to let Walker handle the situation when one of its recommendations was angrily denounced by a powerful business representative. According to King "Our committee went into a huddle and gave the ball to our star plunger, Walker, to crash the line. Walker, who is about six foot three, and weighs around 235 pounds of solid bone and muscle, ran the ball in great style." Later at the traditional banquet of the Mutual Alliance King himself seated at a table with this same, still simmering business representative. He recalled "I looked around for dependable aid, if required. To my relief I saw Walker a few tables away exhibiting bull doggedness, as though the would love to pin down someone's ears just for the fun of it."

*King was one of many highly literate journeymen who periodically wrote for the Journal. He later served for many years as a Grand Lodge auditor. One of his most memorably poignant submissions detailed his emotions during the long journey home to his wife when he received new, while on assignment, that his soldier son had bee killed in World War II.
After being appointed to the Grand Lodge staff in 1942, Walker was elected GVP and was assigned to the Great Lakes territory in 1945. When Hayes became IP in 1949 he transferred Walker to Grand Lodge to serve as resident GVP. Ten years lager, at age fifty-nine, Walker became the IAM's fifth GST.

In contrast to the quiet and courtly Peterson, Walker was a rumbling, limbering mass of crude energy. He was built like a bull and at time literally snorted and pawed the ground like one. At a time when few machinists would utter even such mild expletives as "hell " or "damn" in front of "ladies" his speech was liberally laced with obscenities and profanity. To Walker this was "shop language." And if it offended anyone, male or female, that was just too bad. He could be hard as nails and, claiming the IAM staffers were on duty twenty-four hours a day, was known to call an auditor, or even a district lodge financial officer, at one or two o'clock in the morning. But he was usually gentle in this dealings with rank-and-file members.

Elmer Walker viewed the IAM Constitution as a kind of holy writ--the final word on any question of controversy--and he was fanatic in his devotion to the letter of the law. To him the "members' money" was a sacred trust. Despite his gruff manner and profane shop talk most IAM members seemed to like him. Tom many he typified the old fashioned "Fighting Machinists". Though he served as GST for only six years, he made a permanent contribution when he became the first chief financial officer of any union to foresee the potential of data processing. His willingness to invest in the latest technology gave the IAM a head start in electronic record keeping. For some years the IAM was the only labor organization with computer capability.


"Working Class Heroes" and "Disillusioned Liberals"
Showdowns in St. Louis

 

History


Comments or Suggestions? E-mail the Communications Officer
of Siouxland Lodge 1426 IAMAW
Greg Enright