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History

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

"Mediation to Finality" on the Railroads

"These are journeymen," Roy Siemiller told a group of Washington reporters in January 1967, "They must be paid journeymen wages." In an impromptu press conference he was explaining why Machinists, along with five other shop craft unions, were getting ready for the first nation-wide strike on the railroads in forty-five years. The after effects of that earlier walkout were still reflected in the substandard wages still being paid skilled craft workers in railroad roundhouses and repair shops throughout the industry.

When negotiations began, in April 1966, railroad machinists received $3.04 an hour--$1.82 less than construction machinists, 84 behind airline mechanics and from 50 to 96 an hour below most manufacturing. With the railroads fattening their profits hauling freight headed for Vietnam, the workers asked for increments totaling 20% over three years. The carriers countered with a lone, one-time 5% wage increase. After six months of negotiations, bargaining reached an impasse. In most other industries the workers would have been free to strike but under the Railway Labor Act the shopmen had to wait until a special board appointed by the President issued a report and made recommendations. It added a few minor sweeteners, but basically went along with the carriers' 5% offer. While acknowledging that wage compression had created inequitable differentials between skilled and unskilled classifications, the board offered no solution beyond "speeding job evaluation to rationalize wage structures." The shopmen set a strike date and began packing their tool boxes. As in the airline industry negotiations a year earlier, Senator Wayne Morse led the fight against the workers' right to strike. He informed the Senate, "We cannot tolerated a shutdown of the railroads of this country for 48 hours, in this time of crisis, to say nothing of a prolonged strike."

As the White House began whipping up semi-hysteria with statements suggesting that a nation-wide railroad strike "would sell out our boys in Vietnam and bring the economy to its knees", only one Senator and eight Congressmen had the courage to vote against a joint resolution to extend the Railway Labor Act's ban on strikes. During this extension the parties met daily, often twice a day but, even with the Secretary of Labor and the Secretary of Transportation sitting in, the carriers would not budge beyond a general wage increase of 6%. As a new strike deadline approached, the President called for another joint resolution extending the no-strike, no-lockout bar for still another ninety days. Senator Morse introduced a bill proposing that if the parties could not reach agreement within ninety days a five member board would file determinations to take effect for two years or until the parties reached agreement. Morse called this "mediation to finality." When Siemiller heard this description he snorted, "Hell, that's a violation of truth-in-packaging. You can call compulsory arbitration mediation to finality, but it's still compulsory arbitration."

Testifying before a Senate Labor Subcommittee, the president of the Railway Employee's Department warned the proposal being pushed by Morse and the White House would increase the profits of private railroad corporations while robbing workers of their right to strike. He noted that the proposed legislation

Imposes no penalty of any kind on corporations that have refused for nearly a year to . . . seriously try to settle this dispute. They have been trying to goad us into a strike and goad [Congress] into a law taking away our right to strike.
When the debate reached the Senate floor, Senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas argued that while Johnson' "mediation to finality" limited the "right of workers to strike, it does nothing to limit management's quest for greater profits." Rejecting the argument that the war in Vietnam crated a crisis, Yarborough asked, "If the national interest is to supersede labor's right to strike, should not the national interest impose some burdens on railroad management?"

According the LIFE magazine, Siemiller triggered passage o the Morse bill in the House by giving, "If not a strike call, at least a wink and a nod to some 25,000 railroad Machinists, who hadn't had a strike since 1922." As IAM members surged out of the shops, the other crafts scrambled out with them. For forty-eight hours, just long enough for the House to rush the Morse bill to Johnson's desk, 137,000 shop craft workers from six unions walked picket lines outside the nation's railroad yards. Chiefs of some of the other railroad unions were livid. A vice president of the Sheet Metal Workers blamed the swift enactment of compulsory arbitration legislation on Siemiller's "bullheadedness, egotism and lack of judgment." Characterizing the Morse bill as "The Strikebreaking Act of 1967," Siemiller snapped back by characterizing some of the other railroad union chiefs a "gutless wonders."

In a report reviewing the situation, the Washington Post contended that the biggest casualty was collective bargaining. The Post pointed out that while many were pinning responsibility for the Morse bill on the IAM's forty-eight hour walkout, "others blame the equally hard line of the chief management negotiator and the carriers unabashed campaign for a government-dictated settlement." Moreover, the Post said, by making it clear the White House would not tolerated a strike Johnson "played directly into the hands of the carriers, which had been lobbying assiduously for a compulsory arbitration law."

In the end railroad industry bosses had a reason to regret their pressure for a government-dictated settlement. Investigations conducted by the special board, headed by the same Senator Morse who had conceived "mediation to finality", found that railroad shopmen were far from parity with similar skills in other industries. According to the Machinist the special boards' determination left industry chiefs "shocked, stunned, embarrassed an confused." Their award raised machinist' wages 55 an hour, to $3.60, 32 above the carriers last offer.

Having demanded government intervention, railroad management could do little except mutter "We wuz robbed" when they saw the award. Though pleasantly surprised by the outcome Siemiller could forgive neither Morse's intervention in the 1967 railroad negotiations nor his opposition in the 1966 airline strike. When Morse campaigned for his fourth term the following year, he did so without the support which had always been automatic and enthusiastic from Oregon machinists. In the primary, Morse defeated the MNPL-backed challenger but could not heal the wounds that were left before going down in the general election.

The Millionth Member

In Southeast Asia, Lyndon B. Johnson was steadily raising the ante on America's involvement in Vietnam. That involvement, which began with aid given the French colonial forces by the Truman Administration following World War II, was increased during the Eisenhower years and was further expanded by Kennedy. But the build-up entered a new dimension in March 1965 when Johnson authorized the first U.S. ground troops, a contingent of 3,500 Marines. By the end of 1966, 375,000 American troops were in Vietnam, by January 1968, 525,000. As the fighting dragged on longer than World War II or Korea, Americans became increasingly divided. On one side were peace marchers who expressed revulsion of "search and destroy missions" and daily body counts in chants of "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" Just as many, if not more, proudly adorned their car bumpers with such flag-waving slogans as "America--Love It Or Leave It" and "No Glory Like 'Old Glory'."

When billions of dollars worth of new Pentagon procurement were piled on production needed for NASA's projected Apollo 11 space shot, factory orders and employment surged. As unemployment fell to post World War II lows, recent workers fears of automation and union concern about overseas export of jobs quickly evaporated. Rising consumer debt--up 133% between 1956 and 1967--when added to these other inflationary pressures, eroded the purchasing power of working families. While it became increasingly difficult for skilled workers to subsist on wages ranging from $3.50 to $4.50 an hour* corporate profits were reflected in such extravaganzas as the Houston Astrodome--where private boxes rented from $15,00 to $34,000 a year and spectators bored with the gladiators below could retire to secluded suites complete with wet bars and color TV.

*In 1967 the federal minimum wage was $1.40 an hour.
With labor in short supply more workers turned to unions to try to keep up with the cost of living. George Meany's report to the AFL-CIO's 12th Annual Convention in November 1967 showed a million-and-a-half membership increase since 1965. Moreover, as the Machinist exulted in a front page story, Meany's report "disclosed that the IAM scored the greatest increase in membership of any national or international union during the past two years." Two months later GST Matt DeMore reported that net growth of 174,312 since June 1965 had finally put the IAM over the million member goal that eluded Harvey Brown in the 1940's and Al Hayes in the 1950's. Total membership, including retired, striking and unemployed members, showed 951,269 members in the United States and 51,310 in Canada. A check of the computer revealed the one millionth member to be Tim Braunstein, a twenty-four year old assembler at Pratt and Whitney. Braunstein joined Local Lodge 1746 in East Hartford shortly after completing a six-year hitch in the Navy. He signed up during an intensive company-wide organizing campaign conducted by an elite corps of stewards know as the "Green Berets"** set up by GLR, later GVP, Justin Ostro.
**This was a takeoff on a much publicized special forces fighting unit in Vietnam glamorized by Hollywood star John Wayne in a movie called "The Green Berets."
To commemorated this milestone Siemiller had Braunstein flown to Washington where he was introduced to such dignitaries as AFL-CIO President George Meany and Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz. Braunstein was also wined and dined as the guest of honor at a sumptuous "One Million Strong" banquet at one of Washington's toniest hotels.

About the same time that Braunstein was being feted as a visible symbol of the progress the IAM had made in its first eighty years, some 60,000 Viet Cong troops were celebrating Tet--the Asian Lunar New Year--by overrunning police stations, military, bases, government building, radio stations, power plants, embassies, including the U.S. Mission in Saigon, and other key points in 100 Vietnamese cities.

This marked the beginning of the end in Vietnam. Realizing that even America's enormous power could not prop up a regime lacking the support of its own people, Lyndon Johnson overruled his generals and began the long, slow and painful process of disengagement. Total IAM membership hovered above the million mark for the next thirty-three months. However, the proportion of dues payers to retirees, striking members and unemployed members began to fall steadily in the late '60's when America's involvement in Vietnam and commitment to the space program were simultaneously reduced.

Chicago--Turmoil and Tear Gas

When delegates to the 1968 Grand Lodge Convention converged on Chicago, the headquarters hotel, the Conrad Hilton, reeked with the lingering stench of tear gas and stink bombs. Along with fresh bloodstains on the plush carpeting in the lobby, the putrid odors were reminders of running battles the week before between police and demonstrators protesting the war in Vietnam. Thousands of young people had come to Chicago to disrupt the Democratic Convention.

Week-long skirmishes recorded by television climaxed in a battle between police and young people in Grant Park that spilled over into the hotel. The blood of a number of "Clean-For-Gene" young people working for the nomination of peace candidate, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, still stained carpeting in the lobby.

Few of the IAM delegates arriving at the scene felt any sympathy for the demonstrators who were clubbed by the police in full view of millions of television spectators. Those who fought in World War II or the Korean conflict or had sons fighting in Vietnam were infuriated by the sight of unkempt "hippies and yippies" desecrating the American Flag.* In his opening speech Roy Siemiller undoubtedly spoke for most of the delegates when he said, "Union members, who have worked long and hard to build this country, are sick of rioters, looters, peaceniks, beatniks and all the rest of the nuts trying to destroy it."

*The term "yippies" derived from the Youth International Party, a put-on of the establishment parties. Their Presidential candidate was a hog they called "Pigasus."
In line with official AFL-CIO policy the IAM viewed the war in Vietnam strictly as a continuation of the eternal struggle between democracy and communism. Reporting from Vietnam in 1965, Machinist editor Gordon Cole sent back glowing descriptions of the Vietnamese Confederation of Labor as one of the country's unifying forces. Throughout the decade the Machinist periodically featured stories and pictures extolling the activities of Vietnam's "free and independent unions." At various time Cole urged IAM locals to help rebuild schools, union halls and orphanages in that stricken country. Until the final years of the struggle, when the peace movement finally began to seep into union halls, Machinist state councils and AFL-CIO state federations routinely approved resolutions supporting U. S. policy in Southeast Asia.

In addition to patriotic reasons for supporting the war, delegates in Chicago deeply resented the damage the demonstrators inflicted on the Democratic Party's presidential nominee, Hubert H. Humphrey. Like most American trade unionists IAM members felt a special kinship for Humphrey, one of the most progressive and decent candidates ever offered by any party. In the 1940's, long before civil rights became a popular issue, Humphrey was battling bigotry and discrimination. Throughout his long career as a Senator and Vice President he was an eloquent and effective advocate for laws improving the nation's health, housing, education, Social Security, Medicare and labor laws. Humphrey was a brilliant, witty and powerful speaker who could inspire and electrify union audiences as no one since Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was a regular and welcome speaker at IAM conventions and meetings. In the 1968  election against Richard Nixon and George Wallace, Humphrey was labor's choice by far. But since he had no course as Vice President except to support Johnson's policies in Vietnam a bunch of political crazies came to Chicago to destroy him.

Later investigations and court proceedings showed that much of the turmoil surrounding the Democratic Convention in Chicago resulted from overreaction by Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley and the police. In dealing with demonstrators law officers allowed themselves to be taunted and tormented into what formal reports later characterized as a "police riot." But to delegates attending the IAM's Convention in 1968 Daley and the police were heroes. Despite some scattered mutters of disapproval, the delegates cheered lustily when Daley's name was mentioned and enthusiastically endorsed a resolution commending him and the Chicago police force. According to the Machinist, "It was adopted with loud applause and no dissent.

This was the first convention since 1911 in which constitutional changes did not have to be submitted to membership referendum for ratification. Prior to the convention, a number of lodges launched a move to let Siemiller serve at least one more term. Nearing sixty-five, Siemiller appears to have harbored hopes the delegates would reward his accomplishments by raising the retirement age. No less than 199 lodges endorsed a proposition providing that "any elected officer whose term of office begins prior to his 65th birthday may serve out his full term of office." Since Siemiller would not be sixty-five until September 1969, three months after the next IP's term of office would begin, this change was expressly tailored to give him another full term. From the start, however, opposition to the proposal was strong and outspoken. Almost 300 lodges endorsed resolutions aimed at reducing the mandatory retirement age and delegate talk in the corridors, hospitality rooms and bars made it clear the sixty-five year retirement rule was too deeply embedded to be tampered with. Members liked Siemiller and the go-go image he created for the IAM, but they did not consider him indispensable.

Witnesses appearing before the Law Committee agreed almost unanimously that raising the retirement age in the IAM Constitution would make it harder to negotiate earlier pensions in IAM contracts. Responding to the strong sentiment against any change that would have the effect of raising the retirement age the Law Committee recommended, and the convention ratified, a proposition that further tightened the sixty-five year age restriction. This not only barred Siemiller from seeking re-election but eventually shortened the tenure of other council members as well. 

With the strike fund falling steadily, from a high of $10 million at the start of the 1966 airline strike to less than $4 million when the convention met, the Law Committee proposed that a 50 a month per capita increase be made more palatable by upping weekly benefits from $25 to $35. Having already authorized a 40 per capita increase for the general fund (10 a year for four years) the delegates flinched at the prospect of going home after approving a total of 90 in new monthly per capita taxes. They voted it down on a division of the house.

For the first time since 1948 neither the Democratic candidate for President nor his running mate came in person to address a Machinist Convention. Normally Humphrey would have come, but the wounds inflicted during the Democratic National Convention were still fresh. Neither he nor Chicago could risk another confrontation. Talking to the delegates over a telephone hook-up from California, where he was campaigning hard to make up ground lost in the chaos surrounding this nomination, Humphrey made a rousing appeal which, as the Machinist later reported, touched off "rising cheers, applause and marching demonstrations."

Notwithstanding labor's affection for Humphrey, pollsters gave him no chance toe beat Nixon in November. With the albatross of Vietnam around his neck, Humphrey was heckled, jeered and harassed by antiwar protesters at every stop on the campaign trail. At the time IAM's Grand Lodge convention endorsed him, he was hopelessly behind many of America's working people, turned off by the epidemic of riots in the streets and sit-ins on the campus, seemed ready to respond to the demagogic racism of Alabama's Governor George Wallace.

With the regular Democratic organizations broke and demoralized, the labor movement put on a full-court press for Humphrey's campaign. Unions card-punched names of members across the country by state, county, and precinct. The IAM's Univac III computer at Grand Lodge was commandeered to break down lists of union members by address and congressional district. Squads of MNPL volunteers manned phone banks and rang doorbells. To neutralize Wallace's racist appeals, union members were mailed information exposing his anti-union record on right-to-work and other labor laws.

In a best-selling chronicle of the campaign, The Making of the President--1968, author Theodore White credits America's unions with a "near miracle" in forging Hubert Humphrey's incredible comeback in October. According toe White,

The dimension of the . . . effort . . . can be caught only by its final summary figures: the ultimate registration, by labor's efforts, of 4,600,000 voters; the printing and distribution of 55,000,000 pamphlets and leaflets out of Washington and 60,000,000 more from local unions'; telephone banks in 638 localities using 8,055 telephones, manned by 24,611 union men and women and their families; some 72,225 house-to-house canvassers; and on election day, 94,500 volunteers serving as car poolers, materials distributors, babysitters, poll watchers . . .
On the eve of the election, the Machinist featured a front page letter from Siemiller to the members stressing the similarities between extremists on the right and extremists on the left. Reminding Machinist readers that campus rioters were responsible for the election of Ronald Reagan in California and urban disorders had led directly to defeat of a great liberal, pro-labor Senator, Paul Douglas in Illinois, the IP warned members against being tricked into a vote they would live to regret. Matt DeMore campaigned throughout his old haunts in Ohio, where he had been president of the State Council and the Northeast Territory, where he had been GVP.

Efforts such as these persuaded millions of previously uncertain union members to pull the lever for Humphrey on election day. They led a surge which, most political analysts agreed, would have given Humphrey the victory had the election been held just a few days later. The final vote was 31.7 million (43.4%) for Nixon, 31.2 million (42.7%) for Humphrey and 9.8 million (13.5%) for Wallace.

In one of the ugliest and most acrimonious political campaigns in American history, unions brought their candidate from far behind to with an eyelash (7/10 of 1%) of victory. It wasn't quite enough. Thanks to a motley crew of hippies, yippies and assorted political crazies, America got Nixon, Agnew, Watergate, Kent State, Jackson State and five more years of Vietnam.

 


Donnybrook at McDonnell
The Largest Award in Labor History
Siemiller and DeMore Bow Out

 

History


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