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History

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

The Big Airline Strike of '66

The 1966 round of negotiations on the airlines--initiated in October of 1965 but prolonged as usual by the long, drawn-out technicalities, notices and waiting periods required by the Railway Labor Act--was seen as catch-up time by members working for a number of major airlines. Despite the high skills needed by airline mechanics, their wage scales were significantly behind other industries. For some years airline profits were depressed by the huge capital outlays needed to bring the industry into the jet age. The work force assumed that when the switchover from reciprocating to jet engines was complete, the carriers would share the profits made possible by greater productivity. By the mid '60's those profits were enormous. In 1965, for example, Eastern turned a $5.8 million loss in 1964 into a $29.7 million profit. United almost doubled its 1964 profit of $27.3 million and the industry as a whole recorded a half billion dollar surplus. The Machinist graphically described the industry's profits as having "whooshed into the jet stream." The 1966 negotiations involved more than 35,000 IAM members on five major carriers--Eastern, National, Northwest, Trans World and United. However, some of the underlying causes of the strike that followed went deeper than money. On United, for example, many IAM members were still simmering with resentments left over from the '63 negotiations. In that earlier round of bargaining which dragged on for eighteen months, the longest in the history of the industry, supervisors at Idlewild (now JFK) in New York picked a fight by bringing Teamsters employed by a subcontractor on the field to do IAM work. With patience already stretched to the breaking point by many frustrating months of fruitless talks, IAM stewards pulled their members off the field and began phoning local leaders at Newark, Buffalo, Cleveland, Washington and other points. By morning, United was down at locations across the continent. The company immediately struck back, firing twenty-three stewards and officers. Included were some of the IAM's most loyal and committed local leaders--members with as much as twenty years seniority. Thousands of United's union members prepared to stay out until hell froze over or the fired local leaders were reinstated.

Seeking to avert a shutdown that would be a public relations disaster in view of the upcoming Christmas holidays, Al Hayes met with United's top brass and worked out a settlement that included arbitration rather than the unconditional reinstatement the members were demanding. He urged this solution on District 141's leadership, convinced that any fair-minded arbitrator would reinstate the workers since the company had blatantly goaded them into their wildcat. The general chairmen reluctantly agreed to submit the company's offer without recommendation. Many local presidents urged their members to turn it down, but with Christmas coming on and the package containing a large chunk of retroactive wage increases, the members voted to accept, many assuming the fired local lodge leaders would be reinstated in arbitration. When the decision upheld the company in twenty of the twenty-three cases, the Grand Lodge was stunned and a call for vengeance went up at the grass-roots.

This was the context in which the 1966 negotiations were conducted. But another factor also contributed to the confrontation. With U.S. involvement in Vietnam deepening, the Johnson Administration was jawboning a voluntary 3.2% wage guideline to keep the economy form heating up. Early in the negotiations, the IAM's Transportation GVP, Joe Ramsey, warned that despite the guidelines the union would not accept wage increases of less than 5% in 1966 and 1967, plus another 4% in 1968. This would take top mechanics from $3.52 to $4.05 an hour. Other issues included more holidays, longer vacations, company-paid welfare and pension plans and a cost-of-living escalator. With negotiations deadlocked, the members were ready to walk out in April, but Johnson invoked the Railway Labor Act, setting up a special emergency board headed by Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, to recommend a settlement. The board came up with a 3.5% offer--little more than the president's 3.2% which Ramsey had termed unacceptable. The carriers were quick to snap at the "compromise," but the workers flatly turned it down. On July 8, almost a year after negotiations started, and more than six months after the old contract expired, 35,300 IAM members began picketing 230 airports. From JFK to Honolulu jet engines revved up for one last roar before gasping to final silence. In empty waiting rooms throughout the nation signs went up:

United Air Lines regrets
the temporary suspension
of service due to the 
work stoppage of employees
represented by the International
Assoc. of Machinists. United 
will resume service as soon
as possible.

With cargo handlers, ramp service workers cleaners, storekeepers, inspectors, and food service workers joining mechanics on picket lines the strike hit far, wide and deep. 150,000 daily airline passengers were forced to scurry around for trains, buses or rental cars. Airmail and air freight were delayed and hotels, travel agencies, resorts and other businesses began to feel the pinch. In a move that bordered on government-sanctioned strike-breaking the Civil Aeronautics Board announced that carriers still operating would be allowed to increase their service and non-scheduled airlines would be permitted to lease planes from the five downed lines. The Transport Workers Union, representing thousands of workers on American and Pan Am, served notice that they would not perform any duties "not normally done prior to the strike" and would not work on ay aircraft leased from the five struck carriers.

As the strike continued politicians and newspapers chorused condemnation of IAM members. The Wall Street Journal and Washington Evening Star called it a "strike against the public." The Philadelphia Bulletin described it as "a gun-at-the-head strike." And the New York Times termed it "unconscionable." In Congress, the usual coterie of conservatives and reactionaries shouted for legislation replacing the right to strike with compulsory arbitration. The unkindest cut of all came from Senator Wayne Morse, long considered the workers' best friend on Capitol Hill. Elected and re-elected with labor support, his voting record was considered second to none by union members. But he was furious at Siemiller and the Machinists. Having served as chairman of the special emergency board, he took the IAM's refusal to abide by its recommendations as a personal insult. He condemned the strike as unpatriotic and a breach of the union's responsibility to "our troops in Vietnam". Roy Siemiller, appearing before a Senate Committee, denied that national defense was imperiled, stating, "contracts between the struck carriers and Military Air Lift Command are still in effect. All MAC flights are still being serviced. 177 charters carrying more than 15,000 military personnel were serviced between July 9 and July 25." Nonetheless, as the strike stretched into the third week with no end in sight pressures built for legislation authorizing government seizure or compulsory arbitration.

On the morning of Thursday, July 28, the President called negotiators for both sides to the White House and sat them down for marathon bargaining. During the day, LBJ dropped by from time to time to sip coffee and keep the talks moving. By the evening of the next day Siemiller and the airlines' chief negotiator, William Curtin, stepped before TV cameras to announce agreement. The next day newspapers all over the country pictured a beaming Lyndon B. Johnson with his hands clasped in benediction over Siemiller's and Curtin's handshake. It appeared that Johnson, the master manipulator, had settled the strike on its 22nd day. The proposed pact called for a 4.5% raise each year for three years. Johnson termed the settlement "non-inflationary" even though it exceeded his 3.2% guideline.

The general chairmen form the five striking districts sent telegrams recommending ratification of "the best contract ever negotiated on the airlines." But at terminals across the nation the air turned blue with denunciation of an offer the members considered "too little and to late". They noted that it failed to include a cost-of-living clause and came up short of fringes. Over the weekend angry Machinists stormed local lodge halls to reject the settlement--17,251 to 6,587. While the members turned thumbs down on the settlement Siemiller's popularity did not seem to suffer. He had made himself symbolically visible on the picket line throughout the strike. Most members, being familiar with Johnson's reputations as a "arm twister", assumed he used his formidable powers of persuasion to force a settlement on the IP. Letters and telegrams poured into Grand Lodge assuring Siemiller that rejection of the contract was not repudiation of him.

The result of the strike vote shocked the White House, Congress, the press and the public in general. Until the overwhelmingly one-sided vote dashed cold water on the settlement many people assumed rank and file union members were being kept off the job involuntarily by their "union bosses." The vote proved that these members were even more militant than their leaders. As the strike neared its fifth week Congress and the President were baffled and bewildered as to the next step. With an election on the horizon neither was anxious to initiate strike-breaking legislation. In leading the fight against a compulsory arbitration bill introduced by Senator Morse, Senator Clark of Pennsylvania said, "I'm not ready for it; I don't think the Senate is ready for it; I don't think the country is ready for it."

With the strike in its fifth week the Senate agreed upon a bill authorizing the President to re-invoke the Railway Labor Act and send the parties back to the bargaining table for another 180 days. If this failed to produce a settlement the President could make further recommendations to Congress. A week later the House passed a similar bill. Appalled by the prospect of a compulsory settlement the union and the industry went back into an all-night session mediated by Assistant Secretary of Labor Jim Reynolds and finally reached the agreement that was ratified, 17,721 to 8,235, on August 19, forty-three days after the strike began. The new contract provided for a 56 an hour raise for skilled workers, and average increase of 50 an hour for others. More importantly, it included a cost-of-living clause and substantial improvement in fringes. The final settlement worked out to 6%, considerably better than the President's original 3.2% guideline, the 3.5% proposed by Morse's special board or even the 4.5% offered in the White House settlement.

With $10 million in the strike fund on June 30, only $7.4 million remained by the end of the strike. The Grand Lodge began to mail individual $25 strike checks at the beginning of the third week. O the $6.5 million paid out in strike benefits for the entire year of 1966 almost half went to members striking the five grounded airlines. The IAM was pilloried in editorial columns. and received unfavorable newspaper headlines every day for weeks. And yet membership, already up 40,000 in the first six months, surged even more spectacularly while the strike was in progress. GST DeMore reported that with a net gain of 12,345 in July--the largest monthly increase since the Korean War--membership topped 900,000 for the first time in the IAM's 78-year history. Much of this gain came as a result of the build up in Vietnam and new hiring in aerospace.

Bye-Bye Boulware

While battling on one front to break the Administration's 3.2% wage guideline in the air transport negotiations, the IAM was simultaneously involved in a multi-union effort to combat a bargaining strategy that had long been used by General Electric and that was named for the vice president in charge of its industrial relations, Lemuel Boulware. Labor historian Thomas Brooks has called Boulwarism "the first truly new anti-union formula since James H. Rand, Jr. devised his famous Mohawk Valley formula in 1936."

Boulware borrowed many of the techniques perfected by Rand but added refinements of his own to achieve the primary objective: divide and conquer. For decades General Electric played off one union against another, craft against industrial, AFL against CIO, IUE against UE. Boulware also commissioned regiments of high-powered public relations experts to conduct a continuous year-round program of sophisticated communications designed to drive a wedge between workers and their unions. By persuading large numbers of employees that unions were outside trouble-makers while the company was genuinely concerned with the interests of its "family," Boulwarism softened resistance to the "take-it-or-leave-it" packages the company tossed on the table in lieu of bargaining at contract time.

Having almost destroyed its majority union, the IUE, in a disastrous strike in 1959, the company was able to keep most unions in its plants demoralized and on the defensive. As a result wages in electrical manufacturing lagged substantially behind other major industries. While General Electric's profits rose 90 percent between 1960 and 1966 employee wages and benefits increased an average of only 2.2 percent a year, even lower than LBJ's 3.2 percent guideline. Profit and wage comparisons for the other electrical appliance giant, Westinghouse, were roughly the same.

In March, 1966, representatives of eight unions--the IAM, IUE, IBEW, UAW, Allied Industrial Workers, Sheet Metal Workers, Technical Engineers, and Flint Glass workers--met in Washington to try to change the pattern of bargaining at GE by forging a new trade union response to Boulwarism: coordinated bargaining.

The fifty man IAM delegation, led by GVP Gil Brunner of the Northeast territory, included business representatives, stewards, negotiating committee members and presidents from eighteen local lodges and ten districts in eleven states. The eight national and international unions agreed to seek uniform goals in wages, holidays, vacations, SUB, overtime, contracting out, sick leave and a number of other contract clauses. Over the next few months these goals were presented to General Electric and Westinghouse workers at a series of grass roots bargaining conferences in seventeen states.

When the IUE tried to open contract talks in New York City in early May, GE's representatives walked out, saying they would not negotiate in the presence of observers from the IAM and other unions. Westinghouse followed suit in refusing to open contract talks. Until ordered to the bargaining table by a Federal district judge in New York neither company would sit down with representatives of more than one union in the room. The court termed GE's walk-out inexcusable, describing it as "the boldest and most explicit form of refusal to bargain." The morning after this decision was announced thousands of union members streamed into GE and Westinghouse plants throughout the nation with "Unity" buttons pinned to their shirts an blouses.

Dragged to the bargaining table by court order, GE tried to bluster through with its usual "take-it-or-leave-it" offer. Hitting an unprecedented wall of labor solidarity GE finally broke its longstanding bargaining rules and improved the offer for skilled workers. It was not enough. The unions set a deadline for a walkout by more than 110,000 GE employees. With production essential to Vietnam threatened, the President stepped in, appointing a special committee of the Secretaries of Labor, Commerce and Defense to mediate the dispute. By this time three more unions, the Carpenters, Plumbers and Steelworkers, had joined the coordinated bargaining sessions. At the twelfth hour the company deflected a nationwide strike by sweetening a formerly "final offer." Despite the national agreement local IAM lodges walked out until local issues were resolved in Evendale, Cleveland, an Bellevue, Ohio; Auburn and Utica, New York; Ft. Wayne, Indiana and Rockford, Illinois.

Though coordinated bargaining by unions did not originate with the 1966 negotiations at GE and Westinghouse, the technique spread rapidly thereafter. Conceived as an antidote to Boulware's divide and conquer tactic, coordinated bargaining developed as the best way to deal with diversified conglomerate corporations. By the early 1980's the IAM was coordinating its bargaining with fifty-three major corporations through the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO. This was in addition to in-house coordination of bargaining in aerospace, non-ferrous fabrication, electrical appliance manufacturing and a dozen or so other diversified conglomerates such as Bendix, Dresser Industries and Textron.

In the 1966 negotiations the labor movement managed to bend but did not break Boulwarism at GE. In time the IAM and other unions learned that their gains that year were but partially due to coordinated bargaining. GE sought peace in 1966 only because the Vietnam conflict simultaneously combined a surplus of profits with a shortage of labor. As the IAM and other unions were to learn three years later Boulwarism was far from dead at GE.

The Referendum to End Referendums

Still basking in the glow of his success in busting LBJ's wage guidelines in the air transport strike, and with his popularity in local lodge halls never higher, Roy Siemiller decided to try to free future International Presidents from the requirement that all convention-approved changes in the constitution be ratified by membership referendum. Originally adopted in the early years as a Populist/Socialist check on the IAM's first strong IP, James O'Connell, the requirement that every proposed constitutional change be submitted to a referendum of the entire membership had become an archaic relic which did little except impede the administration of the large, complex and far-flung organization the IAM had become. Members seemed willing to accept all constitutional changes voted at Grand Lodge Conventions except those increasing dues or per capita. The most recent examples were rejections of higher minimum dues following the 1952 and 1956 Conventions, the defeat of the per capita increase needed to establish a strike fund in 1956 and the vote against a 50 cent monthly per capita increase proposed by delegates at the 1964 Convention.

In most cases a determined IP could eventually persuade the members to reverse such rejections in later referendums. After a per capita increase sufficient to set up and finance a strike fund was voted down following the 1956 Convention, Al Hayes succeeded in getting the members to accept a slightly modified version in 1958. And, as noted, when another per capita increase was rejected in 1965 Siemiller was able to go out and sell it a year later.

Noting that few, if any, unions required every action taken by convention delegates to be ratified by referendum, Siemiller set out to persuade the members that this requirement was an antiquated and unnecessary holdover from long forgotten schisms in the IAM. Once again he hit the circuit of state councils, territorial staff conferences and as many local and district lodge meetings as he could manage. Crisscrossing the country he argued that the referendum requirement was too time consuming and costly for a modern, up-to-date union like the IAM. The expense of printing, mailing and processing ballots may have been a minor consideration in 1912, when the IAM had but 63,000 members but by the mid-1960's a typical referendum following a Grand Lodge Convention involved printing and mailing almost a million ballots. Moreover, individual votes had to be counted and verified on as many as fifty or sixty separate issues. The process was not only costly, cumbersome and time-consuming but, Siemiller contended, not really very democratic. In a letter to local and district lodge presidents, Siemiller reminded them that "in some recent referendums, a small minority, sometimes barely four percent of the membership, has been able to veto the considered actions of convention delegates representing the overwhelming majority."

To the surprise of almost everyone except possibly Siemiller himself, the members agreed, by a vote of 49,000 to 41,000, to give up their right to ratify constitutional changes proposed at Grand Lodge Conventions. They still retained their right to initiate constitutional amendments for submission to referendum and also to elect the Executive Council by vote of the membership as a whole. However, by eliminating the traditional rank and file veto over convention actions, Siemiller radically alter the IAM's governing process.

 


"Mediation to Finality" on the Railroads
The Millionth Member
Chicago--Turmoil and Tear Gas

 

History


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