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History

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

Program for Progress

In the final three years of his second term, Red Smith was mainly preoccupied with problems rising out of the great oil swindle. With ever mounting energy costs triggering new rounds of inflation, cost-of-living clauses became the paramount negotiating priority. By 1975 more than half of all IAM members were protected by automatic wage escalators geared to the U. S. Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index (CPI). The struggle to keep paychecks in pace with prices resulted in a 50% surge in local lodge requests for strike sanction and a 100% increase in the number of lodges actually going on strike. When 20,000 members walked out of McDonnell Douglas plants and other facilities in St. Louis, Torrence, Santa Monica, Huntington Beach, Vandenberg and Cape Kennedy in February of 1975 the strike fund began to sink rapidly. By the time the dispute was settled thirteen weeks later--after the longest walkout in the company's history--weekly strike benefits had to be suspended despite an infusion of $4.5 million for the general fund.

At a national staff conference in Chicago in April, 1975 Smith ruefully announced that the Machinist, the labor movement's last surviving weekly newspaper, would be published only once a month beginning in June. Like so many other progressive non-profit publications, the Machinist fell victim to a series of crushing postal rate hikes. As a result of government policies which narrowed freedom of speech and press by subsidizing commercial junk mail at the expense of non-profit publications, the cost of mailing the Machinist had skyrocketed from $1,500 to $6,600 per issue in just two years. Moreover, projected increases would boost future mailing costs to $15,000 per issue. Though the weekly Machinist won many awards for editorial excellence and was widely reprinted and quoted, the Executive Council decided these added costs, combined with the slow but steady leak in membership, were too burdensome for the general fund.

In a sense history repeated itself in the demise of the weekly Machinist newspaper. Just as the monthly Journal was phased out in 1956 because radio reduced the time members spent reading magazine articles, the weekly Machinist was converted to a monthly in 1975 because of mounting evidence that television had even further reduced the average American's reading time. As a monthly publication the Machinist continued to carry popular columns on consumer, job safety and legal problems, but current coverage of negotiations, grievances, arbitrations and other timely membership reports form work places and union halls gradually gave way to fewer but more comprehensive articles on such issues as alcoholism, noise on the job, tax justice, and the role of women in the IAM.

The strike benefits suspended during the long walkout at McDonnell Douglas were reinstated in October, barely in time for a bargaining impasse involving 18,000 members at United Airlines. Although wages and other issues were at stake the crucial sticking point was the company's insistence on its right to shift work out of the bargaining unit. When the strike began in early December, District 141 members realized the strike fund had not had time to rebuild and benefits would probably have to be suspended again by the end of the year. United, on the other hand, immediately began to collect more than $3 million a day from an industry-sponsored Mutual Aid Pact.

Airline unions had been urging Congress to outlaw this agreement ever since a group of the nation's largest carriers joined in setting it up in 1958. Though the pact obviously violated the intent of the Railway Labor Act by undermining collective bargaining and prolonging strikes, remedial legislation invariably got lost in Congressional power plays. With Christmas nearing and hundreds of thousands of holiday travelers facing the prospect of being stranded by the nation's largest air carrier, key members of Congress began to ask questions. Even some newspapers that were normally pro-business questioned the wisdom of paying public carriers not to fly. Facing mounting criticism both from Congress and the press, United agreed to keep work in the bargaining unit and made other concessions sufficient to settle the dispute in time to take care of Christmas travelers in 1975 (and, incidentally, to keep the strike fund from going broke, once again, in 1976).*

*The Mutual Aid Pact paid UAL $48.9 million for the two weeks it did not fly. However, Congress did not consent to outlaw the airlines Mutual Aid Pact until it thoroughly destabilized relationships between labor and management by deregulating the industry in 1978.
In December the Machinist closed 1975 by listing a state-by-state tally of 114,936 jobs which were known to have been exported during the year. Citing the overseas operations of multinational corporations as the major contributor to unemployment or underemployment of some 10-million Americans, The Machinist observed that while multinationals paid employees in foreign plants less than half the wages paid to U. S. worker.
The U. S. Congress continues to encourage manufacturers to move their plants overseas. Americans businesses get from Congress special tax advantages on profits they make on their overseas operations. They get from Congress special government-guaranteed, low-rate insurance on losses from political upheavals, economic restrictions or plant seizures in foreign countries.
Examples of localities in which jobs were lost that year included the Rohr plant in Chula Vista where a thousand IAM jobs disappeared with the expansion of Rohr's operations in Tijuana and Mexicali; the GE appliance plant in Louisville where 425 workers were laid off after wire frame assembly lines were moved to Juarez; the GTE Sylvania plant in Batavia, N. Y., where employment dropped from 200 to 50 after GTE began production in Taiwan; the Control Data division in Casper, Wyoming, where 150 workers became unemployed when production was shifted to Hong Kong and Korea. Moreover, as the Machinist also reported, although one million jobs were lost to foreign competition between 1970 and 1975, only 34,900 workers received special benefits promised in return for organized labor's support for the Trade Adjustment Act of 1962.

In February, 1976, the IAM's International Affairs Representative, Ben Sharman, sitting in for Red Smith, explained to the Senate Finance Committee why unemployment was abnormally high in industries where most IAM members were employed (i.e. 10.1% in aerospace; 8.4% in metalworking machinery; 10% in electrical machinery and 9.3% in fabricated metal products).

Total imports of machinery rose form $4.6 billion in 1969 to $12.2 billion in 1974. Imports of machinery and transport equipment from developing countries alone rose form $409 million to $3.1 billion. More recently, imports of production machinery in the first ten months of 1975 rose to $8 billion from $7.6 billion for the corresponding period of 1974.
Sharman told the senators, "Jobs have been lost by our members who were producing typewriters, pianos, calculators, phonographs, vacuum cleaners and many other products."

Such unrestrained looting of the nation's industrial job base by big business eventually took it toll of IAM membership and per capita. A special committee appointed by Smith to work with the Executive Council in preparing recommendations for the 1976 Grand Lodge Convention found that the steady decline in the dues-paying membership 9from 915,000 in 1968 to 723,000 in 1975) had put Grand Lodge operations $12.5 million in the red during the 1970's. While local lodges were generally prospering from the higher dues being collected under the two times hourly wage formula adopted at the 1972 Convention, the Grand Lodge and many district lodges were suffering severe financial anemia.

After studying and comparing the dues and per capita structures of other major unions, the Executive Council proposed a "Program for Progress" to be presented to the upcoming 1976 Grand Lodge Convention. At the heart of this proposal was a recommendation that per capita be computed annually according to a formula designed to divide dues automatically and equitably between the Grand Lodge and local and district lodges. The Council also recommended that part of the Grand Lodge per capita be set aside for a number of years to build a reserve into the strike fund.

As Red Smith told the delegates  when the convention opened in Hollywood, Florida, "The great accomplishment of our 1972 Convention was that it provided a sound financial base for our local lodges. The legacy of this 1976 Convention must be adequate financing for all three levels on which we operate."

Despite widespread unemployment and declining membership (down to 713,000 dues payers by the time the convention opened), the gathering in Hollywood was the largest in the union's history. It was also one of the most unruly and tumultuous. More then 2,300 delegates from 1,065 lodges were on hand to hear the International President outline the Program for Progress at the opening session. With so many more delegates than expected the sessions had to be switched hurriedly to a larger auditorium. Unfortunately, the new hall was L-shaped, which meant that half the delegates could not see the other half except on enlarged TV monitors. The uproar that marked many of these jam-packed sessions surfaced early in an angry denunciation of the Executive Council's failure to establish a permanent, full-time Civil Rights Department at Grand Lodge. A significantly large bloc of black, Hispanic and women members contended that a commitment made in 1972 had not been kept. At a special early morning hearing called by the Resolutions Committee, they demanded a resolution plainly outlining specific objectives and directing the Executive Council to "establish a Civil Rights Department at Grand Lodge under the direction of a person qualified to coordinate, foster and develop the implementation of these objectives."

The noisiest debate at the 1976 Convention came on a motion to reconsider a roll call vote on key portions of the Program for Progress. In a roll call at the previous session the delegates had voted 3,872 to 3,843 to base per capita on half the weighted average monthly dues calculated on a union-wide basis. Seizing on this paper-thin margin to exploit Red Smith's weakness as a parliamentarian, those opposing any formula which would tie per capita to dues brought the convention to the brink of anarchy. In fact, in the heat of a wild debate on a motion to reconsider, a non-debatable motion to adjourn touched off a disorderly bout of shoving, shouting, chanting and catcalls. Good sense finally prevailed when some of the old pros calmly took over the mikes and got the convention back on the right parliamentary track. The delegates agreed to rescind the roll call vote and refer the matter back to the Law Committee. After further hearings the Law Committee returned two days later with a proposal to set per capita at one hour's weighted average earnings computed on a union-wide basis. Though finally accepting this change, the delegates rejected the proposal to build a reserve into the strike fund.

Guest speakers at the '76 Convention included the only Secretary of Labor ever to come out of the ranks of the IAM, a former GLR in the Southern territory, William Usery. The Democratic candidate for President, Jimmy Carter, was also invited although members of the MNPL National Planning Committee considered him the least appealing of the eight candidates who appeared and spoke at their sessions earlier that year. his remarks, like his Administration, were uninspiring. Even his attempts at humor fell flat. But, once again faced with the choice of a lesser of two evils, Jerry Ford or Jimmy Carter, IAM delegates opted for the candidate who said he would reduce inflation and unemployment and reform health care, welfare and taxation. After getting the endorsement of the IAM Convention in September and the votes of most IAM members in November, Carter rewarded this support by sitting on his hands during labor's fight for labor law reform and by caving in to the oil and gas lobby time after time.

While the Hollywood Convention was unusually rancorous, it was also highly productive. In addition to ratifying a dramatic break with the past (i.e., replacing stated per capita imbedded in the constitution with automatic annual increments based on average hourly earnings) the delegates mandated a number of new or expanded services. These included a new Civil Rights Department as well as vastly expanded Grand Lodge assistance to local lodge community services committees, a larger effort to combat alcoholism and drug abuse, more attention to training for members of local lodge occupational safety and health committees and more coordinated bargaining for members employed by multi-plant corporations.

In giving every delegate a chance to be heard on issues debated at Grand Lodge conventions, Red Smith sometimes left himself open to harassment from local lodge sharpshooters. But, at both of the conventions at which he presided, he achieved his major goals. While some of his predecessors may have been more charismatic or eloquent, no International President ever did more to try to provide a sound financial footing for the future. As George Meany pointed out when Smith retired in June 1977, he guided the IAM safely through some of the labor movement's most difficult years.


Bill Winpisinger--The Beat of a Different Drummer
We Shall Overcome

History


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