Bill Winpisinger--The Beat of a Different
Smith was succeeded by his Resident GVP at Grand
Lodge, Bill Winpisinger. Christened William Wayne but incongruously
known throughout the organization as "Wimpy," the new IP
got off to a fast start. Summoning Grand Lodge staffers to a
midnight meeting to dramatize the start of a new day, Winpisinger
told them that the IAM would no longer be doing business as usual,
that traditional pragmatic, bread and butter unionism could not
survive the forces now arrayed against America's working people.
Repelled by the callous treatment of workers by corporations and
government alike, he announced that the IAM would no longer
cooperate with such sham pretenses in labor-management partnership
as Work in America or the American Productivity Center. Instead, the
IAM would build bridges to coalitions seeking a more equitable
distribution of the nation's income and wealth.
Within a few months publications of all kinds
were sitting up and taking notice of the IAM's new leader. Variously
described by the press as "barrel-chested,"
"balding," "hard-drinking," "profane,"
and "given to a Buick dealers' clothing style" Winpisinger
was identified by the wire services as "The Machinists'
maverick," featured in a Fortune article headed
"Big Labor's Bogeyman" and characterized by Industry
Week as "erudite and articulate . . . one of labor's
Born the son of a union printer in Cleveland in
1924, Bill Winpisinger got on the fast track early in life. As a
burly teenager he was a ferocious competitor, playing both ways on
the line in high school football and good enough at baseball to get
a tryout as a catcher with a Yankee farm club. Possessing a keen and
questing intelligence he was to much the rebel, too rambunctious and
impatient for the faculty at Cleveland's West Tech High School.
Helped by a little push from the authorities, he dropped out of the
11th grade a month after Pearl Harbor. With the world at war and
itching for more action than a class room could offer, he went to
work in a local machine tool factory. In later years he recalled
that this first brush with factory life, though brief, was enough to
teach him the evils of company unionism. In August, 1942, four
months before his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the Navy. Over the
next three years he served in the Mediterranean, North Africa,
England and was at the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. He was on his
way to the Pacific when Japan surrendered. Though he credits the
Navy with teaching him his trade as a diesel mechanic, he says it
also taught him to distrust the abuse and ignorance of autocratic
Back home in civilian life, married and with kids
on the way, Winpisinger put aside youthful dreams of a big league
ball career and settled down as a mechanic for an auto dealer whose
employees were represented by Local Lodge 1363. He recalls that his
personal heroes in those days were Harry Truman and John L. Lewis.
He saw Truman as a "two-fisted man's man, who knew how it was
on Main Street." And though Lewis and his Mineworkers had been
widely condemned for striking in wartime, Winpisinger says, "My
heart was with the miners. Lewis was my kind of guy. He didn't cut
and run when they turned on the heat."
Propelled by a cocky confidence in his own
abilities. Wimpy, (as he was know even then) moved rapidly from
recording secretary to president of Lodge 1363. Though still in his
early twenties, Winpisinger's high voltage leadership, whether on a
picket line or in an emotion-charged negotiation, began to attract
attention in District 54 and the Ohio State Council of Machinists.
In 1951, at the age of 26, he became one of the youngest members
ever appointed to the Grand Lodge staff. Assigned to the field full
time, often under cover and absent from his family for weeks and
sometimes months on end, he was openly impatient with the
traditional conservatism of the staid old Machinist Union. But he
was also hard-working--routinely putting in 18-hour days for months
at a time--and effective. Members were attracted to this tough,
two-fisted young kid who could salt the air with deleted expletives
when processing their grievances, but sound like a Harvard M.B.A.
when negotiating their contracts.
In 1955 All Hayes brought Winpisinger to
Washington to head a joint national organizing campaign with the
Teamsters. Though Winpisinger seldom tried to disguise his
impatience with what he generally considered the IAM' starchy
leadership, Hayes recognized his resourcefulness and tenacity under
fire. Increasingly he was sent where ever strikes were brewing or
internal dissension threatened a local or district lodge. In this
capacity as a trouble shooter Hayes assigned Winpisinger to serve as
his deputy when the old Capital Airlines district was place under
Grand Lodge supervision following a long and bitter strike in 1958.
Despite his background in auto repair Winpisinger took to the IAM's
airline membership like the proverbial duck to water. As one veteran
general chairman later recalled, "He was so well informed on
airline issues none of us realized he was an auto mechanic. He acted
and sounded like an airlines guy, like one of us."
In 1959 Winpisinger negotiated the IAM's first
contract for newly affiliated members on Continental. Two years
later the merger of Capital and United, the largest airline merger
in history, created a number of potential problems for the IAM.
These included integrating the seniority rosters of both carriers
and bringing the members and officers of two separate and disparate
districts into one unified organization. With factions from the two
former carriers competing for leadership, the combined district was
threatened by internal turmoil. Foreseeing the need to present a
solid front in upcoming negotiations with United--a carrier
notorious for hard-nosed bargaining--members of District 141's
Executive Board asked Hayes to appoint Winpisinger as his deputy.
The ensuing negotiations solidified his credentials with airline
employees. However, he faced one of his greatest challenges when
Hayes agreed to arbitrate the cases of the twenty-three members
fired for aiding and abetting the wildcat walkouts that occurred
during these negotiations. As noted earlier these included some of
the IAM's most loyal and committed local leaders. As also previously
noted, thousands of District 141 members felt betrayed when Hayes
agreed to arbitrate. Because of the failure to demand reinstatement,
that earlier contract was ratified by the narrowest of margins.
Later, when the arbitrator ruled against the union in all but three
of the cases, a wave of frustration and fury swept the system.
Winpisinger shared the members' anger but knew the IAM was capable
of providing the kind of militancy they wanted in their bargaining
with United. When he was sent to service members at the carrier's
big maintenance base in San Francisco in the early '60's he found
feeling against the Grand Lodge was running high. On several
occasions Winpisinger had to face noisy hostility at union meetings.
In addition to earning a reputation for nerveless courage in taking
on hooting and jeering crowds. Winpisinger also proved to be more
than a match for management in handling a series of long-standing
grievances. Little by little, in face-to-face meetings on the
property, in the parking lot and in the members' homes he eased
tensions while restoring respect for, and loyalty to, the IAM on the
When Joe Ramsey, the last of the
old-time railroad vice presidents retired in 1967, the scrappy,
young maverick from Cleveland was the natural choice to succeed him.
To better serve a membership that now included auto mechanics and
airline employees as well as railroaders, Winpisinger moved the
office of the Transportation GVP from Chicago, historic center of
railroading, to Washington, the center of government power. Five
years later in 1972, Smith brought Winpisinger to the tenth floor to
serve as resident GVP at Grand Lodge. While smith disliked making
speeches and avoided public appearances as much as possible,
Winpisinger thrived on live audiences and quickly became a much
demanded, though highly controversial, spokesman for union causes.
In paving the way for the "Program for Progress" at the
1976 Convention Winpisinger almost single-handedly sold it to the
membership in a non-stop, year-long tour of state council meetings
and GVP staff conferences. By the time Red Smith retired, Bill
Winpisinger was raring and ready to step into the IAM's top spot.
still a GVP, Winpisinger provided the press with a preview of his
talent for colorful phrases. When a reporter asked him about New
York City hard-hat construction workers who attacked students
parading in protest against the Vietnam War he responded.
"It's hard to tell where the hats end and the heads start
with those guys". While barely seated on the AFL-CIO Executive
Council he sent shock waves through the labor movement by suggesting
it was time for the venerable eighty-four year old George Meany to
Though personally respecting Meany's
enormous abilities and rock-hard integrity, Winpisinger believed the
labor movement was losing ground because too many young people saw
unions as part of an establishment supporting military adventures
overseas and the status quo at home. He felt the need for leadership
that would put as much emphasis on social protest and reform as
collective bargaining. Too much of an individualist to accept
rigidly doctrinaire ideology, Winpisinger would describe his
political philosophy as a seat-of-the-pants version of democratic
socialism. Rejecting labor statesmanship, he would forge links to
radicals and reformers who would have been shown the door by most of
Seeking to revive the
old-time militance of the "Fighting Machinists," he would
take the strongest stand of any union leader against the givebacks
and takeaways demanded by corporate employers eager to cash in on
the highest levels of unemployment since the depression.
many union leaders were being conned by politicians, the press and
professors into embracing Japanese style quality work circles, the
IAM leader would warn members that this was merely the latest
wrinkle in management's age-old search for speedups.
that the chairman of J. P. Stevens, America's number one labor law
violator, was on the board of a bank entrusted with millions in IAM
pension funds, Winpisinger would be the first union president to
publicly demand, and eventually force, the resignation of such an
individual from such a position.
the headlong race toward a holocaust of universal destruction in a
war fought with hydrogen bombs, Winpisinger would risk alienating
members dependent on jobs in defense industries by calling for
disarmament and conversion of defense plants to civilian use.
to stem the deterioration of America's industrial base, the IAM
would not only finance preparation of a detailed blueprint for a
national industrial policy titled "Let's Rebuild America",
but would initiate a nation-wide drive to mobilize necessary
political and legislative support in America's work places.
Despite militant and
innovative leadership, the IAM, like the rest of the American labor
movement, would be battered in the 1980's by the decline of
smokestack industries, by the rise of robotics, by the emergence of
low-wage service industries, by the dominance of multinational
conglomerates, by the Carter Administration's pusillanimous response
to the big oil rip-off, by the resulting triumph of Reaganomics and
by stubborn Congressional adherence to trade policies that could not
have been more harmful had they been plotted by America's worst
In the final decade of the IAM's
first century, record high levels of postwar unemployment would push
millions of workers--many believing they had climbed permanently
into the middle class--back toward the traditional poverty of the
working class. The steady deterioration of the nation's industrial
base would inevitably take its toll on union membership. The IAM,
like the rest of the labor movement, would be decimated by steep and
prolonged declines in membership.
with the approach of the union's second century IAM members could
reflect on their union's past with a feeling of satisfaction. From
that first small gathering in a locomotive pit in 1888 had grown a
great organization that spanned two nations. From that tiny band of
nineteen railroad journeymen had come a vast army of men and women
in hundreds of industries, men and women who build America's rockets
and planes, who repair America's autos, who cut and shape the tools
and dies of America's factories, and who build, install, service,
adjust and operate the machines of an industrial nation.
nineteen railroad machinists set out to demand dignity for their
skills, millions in later generations would one day enjoy the
eight-hour day and the five-day week.
of battles fought across bargaining tables and on picket lines
millions of Americans would come to accept without question their
right to paid holidays and paid vacations, pensions, medical
insurance, paid sick leave and a host of other job related benefits.
feeling justified pride in the past, IAM members can also look
forward with hope to the future. Despite the pessimistic purveyors
of doom and gloom who predict (or hope for) a permanent state of
continuing decline for organized labor, the course of the American
labor movement has never been smooth or easy. As Eugene Debs once
said, "Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and
fallen and bruised itself, and risen again." Early in this
century the IAM was bruised in the battle for the nine-hour day. But
within little more than a decade it rose to win the battle for the
eight-hour day. In the early 1920's the IAM stumbled as membership
fell from a peak of 330,000 to 70,000 under the crushing impact of
company unionism and the NAM's brutal "American Plan." In
the early 1930's, it fell even further under the weight of massive
unemployment. But each time the so-called experts began writing
organized labor's obituary, the IAM was getting ready for another
era of expansion and accomplishment.
opposition that has ranged from the bloody clubs of company thugs to
the bulging briefcases of the breed of intellectual prostitutes who
call themselves "labor consultants", unions perform a
function that remains essential in a free society. They help to
equalize a relationship that is inherently unequal: the relationship
between employers and employees. Few controls are more pervasive and
powerful than the control of one person over the bread of another.
If history proves anything, it has proven time and time again that
even the most paternalistic and benevolent employer cannot alter the
basic inequality in the employer-employee relationship. This has
always been true and today, with more and more workers employed by
vast, impersonal multinational conglomerates, it is even more so.
the millions of workers who have been thrown on the industrial scrap
heap by the temporary triumph of supply side economic policies, and
for the millions more who are laboring at low wage, dead-end jobs,
conditions today are reminiscent of the early thirties. Those who
think, or hope, that gimmicks like quality work circles can displace
the need for unions by transforming free and independent American
workers into docile, grinning and kowtowing automatons on the
Japanese model, are whistling in the wind. They have forgotten that
the anthem of the civil rights movement "We Shall
Overcome" was first sung on the picket lines of union members.
history of the IAM is indeed the story of a struggle. In its first
hundred years the IAM produced many martyrs and heroes, some
forgotten, too many half remembered--Tom Talbot, James O'Connell,
Pete Conlon, Emmet Davison, Al Hayes. The next hundred years will
produce others. The eternal struggle for justice on the job is far
from over. In coming decades martyrs and heroes as yet unborn will
inevitably rise to produce new progress for new generations of IAM