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History

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

Just a Few Missing Fingers

Safety on the job does not seem to have been a burning issue with early machinists. The old Journals paid almost no attention to accident prevention or possible hazards in the workplace. Old-timers say this was at least partially due to a macho attitude in the trade--an almost perverse journeyman pride in missing a finger or two. However, it also seems likely that until very recently, machinists, like most other workers, assumed that risk went with the job. As Al Hayes told a meeting of the National Safety Council in 1957:

Before workman's compensation laws put a price on worker accidents, it did not matter how many men, women or children were killed or crippled in the course of a working day. There were always more waiting at the factory gates the next morning--driven by poverty to plead for a chance to take the place of the injured and dead.
When The Machinist supplanted the Journal, it began to run an occasional column on "Safety", usually based on National Safety Council handouts and reflecting the organization's philosophy that worker safety was simply a matter of installing the right guards on machines and wearing the right goggles, hard hats and safety shoes.

In the early '50's Hayes met the chief industrial hygienist for Eastman Kodak, Dr. William Sawyer, while serving on an advisory industrial committee of the U.S. Public Health Service. He asked Sawyer to set up a medical department at Grand Lodge and serve as the IAM's first medical consultant. Members were invited to submit questions weekly in a Machinist column called "Live a Little Longer," leaned heavily to general medical advice on such subjects as "tired blood," diet, keeping young, when to call the doctor, food fads and problems of retirement. He seldom touched on job problems, but in the early '60's Sawyer noticed an upsurge in letters complaining of rashes and other skin problems due to exposure to epoxy resins and similar irritants. In a rare column headed "Daily Dangers in Your Work", Dr. Sawyer advised, "If you are exposed to oils, solvents, resins, or other substances, the materials you work with can cause skin irritation, fever, fatigue, eye, nose and throat irritation." His prescription suggested no employer responsibility to warn workers or furnish proper safeguards against such health hazards. Instead he told workers to check ventilation and use masks and protective clothing. Even when speaking to various Grand Lodge Conventions in the '50's and '60's, Sawyer expressed no interest in the dangers members met daily in the work place. Instead he used these opportunities to talk about the features that should be included in a collectively bargained health and welfare plan or the beat the drums for national health insurance.

Dr. Sawyer was not alone in failing to recognize that individuals need not merely be victims in the work place, that workers could play a role in prevention of job-related accidents and diseases. Until 1968, resolutions and reports of health and welfare committees at Grand Lodge Conventions were more likely to urge support for the City of Hope than demand action to reduce on-the-job risks. In fact the Chicago Convention was the first to adopt resolutions recognizing the many new dangers members were now facing daily in modern industry. The delegates recommended support for a "National Safety and Health Act" which had been introduce in the Senate by Ralph Yarborough of Texas. Over the next couple of years the IAM's legislative representatives worked closely with other labor lobbyists in an all-out push to replace the existing patchwork of mostly weak and ineffective state laws with a strong federal job safety law. When Congress finally approved the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in December, 1970, the Machinist described it as a "Victory . . . of major importance." For the first time in history, the federal government guaranteed American workers safe and healthy work places. Despite the sense of accomplishment that swept the labor movement George Meany warned, " . . . setting standards in not enough. There must be close scrutiny, constant policing and prompt and adequate enforcement." In an editorial hailing OSHA's enactment, Gordon Cole anticipated what would become OSHA's crucial weakness--chronic underfunding. He noted, "If the new law is to live up to its promise, Congress will now have to be persuaded to appropriate funds for and adequate staff of inspectors." Cole also chided the National Safety Council for ducking out in this fight

Surprisingly, the forces supporting the new law did not include the National Safety Council which has been in hading ever since the in-fighting on Capital Hill became serious. Some have been so unkind as to suggest renaming the organization the National Half-Safety Council.
While the new Occupational Safety and Health Administration was being set up and staffed, Red Smith moved quickly to insure that IAM members were informed and ready to enforce their rights under the law. He appointed a special assistant, Angelo Cefalo, to coordinate a union-wide safety program from headquarters. Each GVP in the U. S. assigned a GLR to monitor job safety and health problems in their territory. Local lodges were instructed to send names of members of their safety committees to Grand Lodge. More than 750 locals responded over the next several months.

About this time Dr. Thomas Mancuso, research professor of occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh, began combing files at Grand Lodge in search of clues to explain the unusually high rate of cancer among machinists who had repaired the old steam locomotives in railroad roundhouses. His research uncovered high concentrations of asbestos dust as the causative factor. Dr. Mancuso became increasingly interested in, and familiar with, the safety and health problems of IAM members and when Dr. Sawyer retired Mancuso stepped in as the IAM's medical consultant. He changed the focus of the weekly health column in the Machinist by dropping the "Live a Little Longer" heading and replacing it with "Job Safety". When he invited members to contact him about their on-the-job health problems, they flooded Grand Lodge with letters describing thousands of job-related symptoms. These letters provided Mancuso with the raw material for a highly acclaimed book, Help For The Working Wounded, which was designed to assist workers in recognizing occupational diseases, answered 250 most frequently asked questions and told how to file for workers compensation. Thousands of copies were distributed at cost to help local and district lodge committees enforce safety and health standards in IAM shops.

Dr. Mancuso became one of the IAM's most valuable assets. He made an enormous contribution to the union's campaign for safer work places. The law itself was, and is, a good one. If properly funded and enforced it could help local and district lodge safety committees to save countless lives and better protect the health of thousands of members. Unfortunately, the Nixon Administration established the pattern of underfunding and half-hearted enforcement that has sabotaged on-the-job safety and health ever since.

Raucous Caucus in Los Angles

The 1972 Grand Lodge Convention was far different than the gathering in Chicago four years earlier. In 1968 the IAM was riding the crest of a surging economy. By 1972 the party was over. Burgeoning imports from overseas sweatshops, plus deep cuts in spending for defense and the space program, dropped the IAM's dues-paying membership from a peak of 916,000 in June, 1969, to 760,000 by the time the delegates began arriving in Los Angles.

In his opening remarks Red Smith told the Convention, "We have been caught in a tide of political reaction and economic recession that has sapped our strength and reduced our numbers". He reported that despite layoffs in the field staff and reduction in Grand Lodge services both the general fund and the strike fund were awash in red ink. To restore financial stability, he proposed the largest per capita increase in the IAM's history--$1.10 over four years--along with a reduction in strike benefits form $40 to $25 a week. He also outlined a revolutionary formula for calculating local lodge dues--one that was being successfully used by such other major unions as the Steelworkers and UAW, i.e. dues based on two times weighted average hourly wages.

From the first fall of the gavel it was apparent that the IAM's 1972 Convention would reverberate with the vast social changes that shook American society in the decade of the 1960's. Local lodge delegations were more widely representative than ever before. More women, blacks, Hispanics and young faces leavened the usual delegations of business representatives and local and district loge officers. But there was also another difference. At past conventions delegates routinely caucused by state or territory. Now, in addition, groups of delegates began to caucus on the basis of interest in issues arising out of sex and color. 

The looser mood of this new breed of delegates was immediately evident even outside the hall. In Chicago, four years earlier, most delegates cheered when police clubbed demonstrators for peace. Now, just four years later, handbillers for peace and partisans of "new left" causes moved freely among delegates passing in and out of the session.

In chairing the debates on resolutions and propositions, Smith was severely handicapped by his obvious weakness as a parliamentarian. Even a presiding officer as deft as Hayes would have had difficulty with delegates as rambunctious as many who swarmed around the mikes in Los Angles. But Smith's lack of familiarity with Robert's Rules of Order compounded the confusion. At times the proceedings skirted chaos. Following one session which was punctuated by fisticuffs on the floor Smith called on GVP Winpisinger to restore a sense of order and decorum. Speaking off the cuff with an eloquence that impressed many who had never heard him speak the resident GVP reminded the delegates they were "the beneficiaries of a great and justifiably proud tradition . . . forged upon principles of fair play". Despite the general disorder and parliamentary muddles most observers admitted that in the end Red Smith got most of the program he had urged in his opening remarks. While he gave every delegate a fair shot at the mikes and every shade of opinion a chance to be heard he also managed to get the convention to accept a sweepingly new concept for the IAM: a formula that tied monthly dues to hourly wages. Although the delegates rejected the proposal to reduce weekly strike benefits they faced up to the need for the largest per capita increases ever voted at an IAM Convention.

In other significant action the delegates took up two of the strongest civil rights resolutions ever submitted to a Grand Lodge Convention. The Resolutions Committee rejected proposed quotas for staff and leadership positions as "undemocratic and divisive". Offering a substitute resolution, which was adopted, the Committee urged the Executive Council to "seek out, encourage and more fully utilize the talents of women and minority group members in paid staff positions and elected offices of the IAM".

During the presidential primaries that preceded the Democratic Convention that year the eventual nominee, George McGovern, was far from labor's favorite candidate. Although comparatively progressive on most social issues, he reflected the biases of his rural South Dakota constituency in the anti-union votes he cast on repeal of Section 14(b), Landrum-Griffin, the Lockheed loan and a number of other issues important to IAM members. Moreover, in the early primaries, McGovern first gained momentum by telling college audiences that marijuana should be decriminalized, draft evaders overseas should be free to come home, and women should have the right to control their own bodies. After he won the nomination such stands were interpreted as advocacy of "acid, amnesty, and abortion". As a result many union members, along with much of middle America, were turned off by the Democratic candidate. At one point in the campaign COPE Director Al Barkan described McGovern's partisans as "kooks, crazies, queers, and feminists". George Many decided to sit out the presidential race and persuaded the AFL-CIO Executive Council to vote for "neutrality". In practice Meany's neutrality turned out to be one-sided. While maintaining stoic silence about Richard Nixon's dismal performance in the White House the old man did not hesitate to express scorn and derision for McGovern. Disagreeing with such "neutrality" Red Smith was the first of a small band of union leaders of national stature to personally step forward and offer McGovern encouragement and support following the Democratic Convention.

A few weeks later, when the Machinist Convention met in Los Angles, many delegates echoed organized labor's general reservations about McGovern and some were clearly ready to go along with Meany's neutrality. Grasping for any support that could be found among union members, both McGovern and Sargent Shriver, his stand-in for the Vice President's spot, came to Los Angeles to seek an IAM endorsement. To ease fears of members employed in defense industries about his well-publicized desire to cut military spending, McGovern emphasized his long-standing commitment to planning for full employment through orderly economic conversion. Though many delegates remained skeptical most preferred McGovern to Nixon. In the end he received a convention endorsement which the Machinist described as "hearty, though not unanimous."

In the remaining weeks of the campaign the IAM did its best for McGovern. Smith's second-in-command at Grand Lodge, Bill Winpisinger, was loudly scornful of the AFL-CIO's neutral stance. At a rally in Indianapolis he angrily told the crowd, "A labor movement that pretends to be neutral, as between George McGovern and Richard Nixon, is a labor movement the forfeits any claim to being a force for morality in America".

In a last minute, open letter on the front page of the Machinist on the eve of the election, Smith urged IAM members to vote even though the labor movement was badly divided. While warning that working people could not afford to be apathetic he expressed his fear that "millions of working people will not bother to got the polls". Election day proved he was right. the 1972 Presidential campaign drew the lowest voter turnout in a quarter of a century. Despite Nixon's sorry record and evidence of the Watergate break-in (already emerging by election day) organized labor's lack of unity, plus McGovern's own blunders (i.e. the Eagleton affair), were fatal to this candidacy. Nixon carried Columbia--paving the way for future leadership by nonentities like Ford and Carter and reactionaries like Reagan.

As an aftermath to the role the Machinists played in the election Red Smith became the first IAM IP ever elected to serve as a member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Though his name was conspicuous by its absence on a list of union presidents recommended by Barkan and COPE, a majority of DNC members from around the country remembered that Smith and the Machinists had stood firm when Meany and the AFL-CIO Executive Council turned their backs on the party's 1972 presidential candidate. In fact, much to Barkan's chagrin, Smith was not only elected to the full Democratic National Committee, but was also installed on the party's interim governing body, the Executive Committee.

Gas Lines, Dimouts and Slowdowns

Having become critically dependent on easy access to an abundance of cheap oil, the U. S.  economy was rocked and forever changed in the fall of 1973 when American oil companies joined various Middle Eastern sheiks and shahs in a gigantic conspiracy to raise prices by creating a phony world-wide oil shortage. The oil shock that year (and again in 1979) caused a financial drain on oil-importing nations that resulted in a ruinous transfer of wealth from industrially advanced economies to petroleum producing parts of the world. 

The boycott which made oil a weapon in the so-called Yom Kippur War against Israel was officially launched by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in October 1973. However, artificial shortages had already begun to surface earlier that year. At first scarcities were limited to scattered localities, like Washington, D. C., but by Labor Day the squeeze was becoming painful throughout the nation. For the first time since the earliest automobiles began chugging down the nation's highways, motorists could not simply drive to the nearest gas pump and ay "Fill'er up". By the end of September the Machinist cited a warning by Washington's Senator Henry Jackson that "we're confronting the prospect of serious, prolonged and widespread shortages which are beginning to have a real impact on our economy, on the standard of living enjoyed by many Americans, on competition and on the structure of the petroleum industry."

In addition to an embargo on oil shipments to the United States (retribution against America's traditional support for democracy in Israel) Arab producers, controlling 60% of the world's proven petroleum deposits, unleashed simultaneous depression and inflation (the phenomenon now know as stagflation) by jacking prices to previously unimagined heights. Such non-Arab producers as Venezuela, Nigeria and Indonesia immediately followed suit.* While the oil embargo caused great hardships for millions of Americans, especially the elderly and the poor, such companies as Gulf, Mobil and Exxon amassed huge profits which they immediately began to plow back into meatpacking, publishing, shipyards, real estate, transportation, chemicals, data processing, insurance, electronics and other industries far removed from exploration and development of new oil resources.

*Before the great oil rip-off of 1973 began, oil generally cost around $2.00 a barrel. At that time oil producers claimed they could find and produce all the oil the world needed if they could charge between $4.00 and $7.00 a barrel by 1985. By 1990 oil was selling at $32.00 a barrel.
Within a few weeks after the Yom Kippur War in October the Machinist reported that IAM members were among the first casualties of the Arab oil embargo. United, TWA, and American had already grounded forty round-trip flights daily and several hundred employees, including IAM mechanics and cargo handlers, were on lay-off. Other carriers, including Eastern and National, were said to be looking at future cutbacks. The Wall Street Journal predicted that by the end of the winter the price of gasoline would rise from around 30 to more than 50 a gallon.

In January and February, 1974, continuing fuel shortages in factories threw more thousands of IAM members into unemployment lines. At a Legislative Conference held jointly with the UAW in Washington in March 1974, GVP Winpisinger described the kind of job losses that were hitting IAM members throughout the nation. He reported that more than 6,400 workers had been laid off in the air transport industry alone. Moreover a government-ordered 42% cutback in fuel allotments for light and executive type aircraft had turned Wichita into a disaster area. As a result of this order hundreds of IAM members were on indefinite layoff at Beech, Cessna and other light aircraft plants. In Denver 450 IAM members became jobless when sales of snowmobiles plummeted. Winpisinger also noted that because of the gas shortage car sales had slumped--which meant that far fewer mechanics were needed for new car preparation and used car renovation. In a random sample of IAM members (one out of every fifty) 20% of those responding to a questionnaire from Grand Lodge reported that they worked in plants in which workers had been laid off because of oil or power shortages. Business representatives in cities as diverse as Buffalo, N.Y., Dubuque, Iowa and Columbia, Md. reported unemployment caused by scarcity of plastic components made from petrochemicals.

At the height of the crisis the federal government began printing gasoline ration stamps and prepared to limit drivers to forty gallons of gas a month. Experts estimated this would be sufficient for anyone residing within thirteen miles of their employment. A poll of members of District 727 revealed that two-thirds lived too far to get to and from their jobs in Burbank or Palmdale on such a ration. Throughout the country IAM local and district loges became clearing centers for carpools, vanpools and even charter bus runs. By the spring of 1974, when the price of gasoline at the pump reached 70 a gallon, the crisis suddenly disappeared. But the ever-growing flood of dollars from the United States to Arab potentates continued to wreak havoc on American workers. Throughout the rest of the decade oil profiteers at home and abroad not only threw America's balance of payments chronically and deeply into the red, but sabotaged the living standards of millions of working families by igniting a skyward spiral in the cost of such basic necessities as food, housing, heating, transportation and utilities.

 


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