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History

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


1977-1989

Bill Winpisinger--The Beat of a Different Drummer

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 toughest cookies."

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 authority.

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 property.

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.

While 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 retire.

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 his predecessors.

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.

While 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.

Learning 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.

Appalled by 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.

Seeking 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.

We Shall Overcome

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 enemies.

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.

Nevertheless 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.

Because 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.

Because 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.

While 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.

Despite 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.

For 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.

The 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 members.

 


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History


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