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History

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

Canadian Machinists and the NDP

In August 1961 Canadian GVP Mike Rygus led a sizeable delegation of IAM members into the founding convention of the New Democratic Party (NDP) in Canada. Meeting in Ottawa's Coliseum, affiliates of Canadian Labour Congress unions joined with delegates representing Canada's Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF)--an agrarian protest movement that swept the prairies during the 1903's Depression--to launch a challenge against the two existing major parties.

In reporting on the NDP's founding, the Machinist explained to U.S. readers "that the Canadian parliamentary system makes working through existing parties fruitless. The system requires members of the House of Commons to vote, not their own views, but the official position of their party." Lacking influence in the older parties, Canadian unions decided to form a broadly-based people's political movement embracing farmers, workers, consumers, professionals and others seeking basic social reform. Although the NDP failed to achieve majority status in the national Parliament, it became the most influential of the third parties in Canada, consistently winning between 15 and 20% of the poplar vote. NDP pressure from the left has influenced policy decisions by both major parties. The NDP has also won elections in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, where it launched a health insurance program that became a model for the rest of Canada.

A New Day for Federal Employees

The IAM's first lodge of federal employees, Local Lodge 174 in Washington, D.C., was organized in 1891, but federal employees did not have a right to join unions prior to enactment of the Lloyd-LaFollette Act in 1912. Even then, unions of government workers had no power to bargain collectively. A few agencies, notably the Interior Department and the Government Printing Office, agreed to informal consultation with employee organizations, but fro the most part unions of federal employees shad to seek improvements in the working conditions of men and women employed by Uncle Sam through legislative action.

With so many members at Navy yards, Army arsenals and other military and civilian agencies, the IAM began early to lobby Congress on behalf of its members. As previously noted, delegates representing government employees at a District 44 Convention in Denver in 1909 picked William H. Johnston to serve as a full-time lobbyist in Washington. Over the next half century he and succeeding presidents of District 44, notably Nick Alifas and William Ryan, helped to bring about the Eight-Hour Work Day Law, the Federal Employees Injury Compensation Act, increases in Government wage rates and laws governing such other benefits as sick leave, health and life insurance, annual leave and pensions.

Though unions of skilled craft workers could demand management's attention on projects of the Bureau of Reclamation, the Corps of Engineers and similar federal activities around the country, labor relations were usually something of a joke in the federal service. For many years employees had a right to join unions, but supervisors could ignore them at will. In January 1962 John F. Kennedy changed the course of labor relations in the Federal Government when he issued Executive Order 10988 establishing the right of federal  employees to form and join unions without "interference, restraint, coercion or discrimination." Although denying recognition to any union asserting a right to strike against the government. Kennedy's order was a milestone in that it directed federal agencies to recognize unions representing a majority of employees. By providing for negotiated contracts between unions and agency heads it removed employees from the mercy of arbitrary supervisors. In time the order's basic flaw, lack of effective enforcement procedures, became clear. However, by legitimizing collective bargaining in federal agencies it encouraged union growth in the federal sector and cleared the way for the statutory protections that came later for federal unions.

Sweet Times and Sour Notes

On the surface America's economy bustled with prosperity in the Kennedy years. Shiny new gas-guzzlers jammed a spreading network of interstate highways. At the edge of every city miles of new detached housing--"the American dream"--sprouted like mushrooms, transforming farmlands into burgeoning suburbs. The stock market boomed as production, profits and dividends soared. The gross national product rose steadily toward the $600 billion a year mark. Yet in the midst of this apparent prosperity unemployment and poverty persisted. As automation increased output per man hour in steel, autos, mining and other basic industries fewer workers were needed each year. With the tidal wage of the post-war baby boom about to break  upon the job market, unemployment continued to hover between 5.5% and 6.5%. While there were more millionaires than ever studies found that 20 million families earned less than the $6,000 a year needed to achieve minimum standards of health and decency in the Kennedy prosperity. The persistence of unemployment in the midst of plenty, together with rapid advances in technology, increased the importance of job security in union negotiations. In preparing for the 1962 round of negotiations with the aerospace industry in February, the IAM and UAW made a second attempt to set common objectives in a joint "price tag" conference. Leaders from both unions put employment security at the top of the list.

In actual negotiations this priority was often submerged by other issues. As long as rank-and-file members remained employed they tended to be more interested in tangible immediate rewards than theoretical future safeguards. Given the choice between better wages at once and less severance pay or supplemental unemployment benefits later, most were willing to let the future take care of itself. This gap, between leadership perceptions and rank-and-file preferences was minor compared to the far more serious, and unexpected, gap revealed by the 1962-63 round of aerospace negotiations.

After months of hard bargaining on both sides, punctuated by a couple of strikes in which the President invoked Taft-Hartley's cooling off provisions, negotiations remained deadlocked in much of the industry. The major sticking point was the union shop. With militant unionists already printing picket signs and preparing to close down the aerospace industry from Cape Canaveral to Vanderberg the President appointed a blue ribbon mediation panel to keep America's space programs in orbit.

In its report the panel recommended that the companies agree to the union shop if it won approval by a vote of no less than two-thirds of the bargaining unit. When top aerospace executives scoffed at this solution reporters asked Kennedy to comment at this next press conference. He defended the panel and the union shop, noting that unlike aerospace "most industrial companies in the United States accepted the union shop many years ago--the steel industry, the auto industry, the aluminum companies, other basic industries. The union shop is part of collective bargaining." Soon thereafter General Dynamics/Convair and North American agreed to let their employees vote on the union shop. When the ballots were counted, both the IAM and General Dynamics Convair and the UAW at North American failed to muster the necessary two-thirds majority. Though the 55% margin in favor of the union shop in both elections would have been considered an easy victory in a political contest, the outcome was a shock to the labor movement. It was an early warning of a fundamental change that had taken place since the time when unions routinely won union shop elections by margins of 90% or more. It signaled the arrival of a new generation of working men and women, a generation with dim recollections of the Depression and no remembrance of work laces without unions. It also indicated the extent to which the McClellan hearings had damaged the image of unionism in America.

By 1963 the IAM was running hard to merely stand still. New shops were still being organized. Few issues of the Machinist failed to note the success of at least one organizing campaign or representation elections. However, the units were generally small, seldom adding more than fifty or a hundred new members. With a few notable exceptions, like IBM and Dupont, most of American's large corporations were either organized by this time or able to hide behind union-restricting legislation in right-to-work-for-less states.

The impact of automation and foreign imports, compounded by a slump in aerospace and continued disappearance of jobs in railroading could not be offset by new organizing. The membership gains of the '50's began to evaporate in Hayes' final term. Membership plunged from 852,000 to 800,000 between June 1961 and January 1964.* However, as the union prepared to celebrate its 75th Anniversary in May 1963 the IAM was widely recognized as one of the world's largest, strongest and most respected trade unions. The IAM's 75th year was marked by proclamations, banquets, speakers, dances and other ceremonies sponsored by local and district lodges and state councils throughout the country. The high point in these commemorative exercises was reached on the evening of May 5 when an overflow crowd of 2,500 gathered in Washington's larges hotel ballroom to celebrate the IAM's Diamond Jubilee.

*It began to bounce back in Hayes' final year, reaching 828,000 by the time he retired in June, 1965.
Governors, mayors, congressmen, senators and cabinet members were there along with business reps, Grand Lodge reps, local and district lodge officers and a host of retired officers and old-timers including an 88-year old member of Local Lodge 432, in continuous good standing since 1898. George Meany was there along with Claude Jodoin, his counterpart in the Canadian Labour Congress. The evening climaxed in the whistling, shouting, standing and foot-stomping ovation that greeted the entrance of the President of the United States.

In a graceful tribute to the union begun by a little band of railroaders in Atlanta, Kennedy said, "The Machinists, organized 75 years ago in Georgia, today represents one of the most powerful forces for progress, one of the most powerful forces for stability, one of the most powerful hopes for the future that we now have." Less than six months later, he was shot in Dallas and America was never quite the same again.

 


Radio and the Radical Right
In Your Guts You Know He's Nuts
All The Way With LBJ
14(b)--Part of the Way With LBJ

 

History


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