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History

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

In machine shops and on the railroads management also attempted to exploit bad time. IAM members increasingly were faced with demands for piecework. The result was and upsurge in strikes that soon drained the union's slender resources. At the time membership, which had grown rapidly the first three years, leveled off and even began to fall. Complicating O'Day's problems, the AFL chartered a rival organization, know as the International Machinists Union (IMU) the year before he took office. AFL President Sam Gompers adamantly opposed the IAM's lily-white membership policy. The rival organization, the IMU, admitted specialists and production workers as well as journeymen machinists. Perhaps because of this industrial orientation, it was openly Socialist, even Marxist, in its platform and philosophy. For a number of years it gave the IAM stiff competition, especially in such Northern cities as new York, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

Soon after taking office O'Day angered many members by calling off a four-month strike (and suspending strike benefits) on the Pennsylvania panhandle Railroad. The General Executive Board, which originally agreed, quickly backed away when a backlash developed in the ranks. The Board issued a statement which shifted the blame to O'Day. In effect, they said the Grand Master Machinist may have been "too hasty." They recommended that "more time be taken before a fixed date be made to declare a strike off." Despite these troubles, O'Day succeeded in signing the first Machinist contract with a major railroad, the Sante Fe, and also approved the organizing of the first district lodge on the Union Pacific by Pete Conlon.

O'Day spent much of his short time as Grand Mater Machinist traveling from one crisis to another. It seemed that as soon as he got to one place to deal with a threatened strike or lockout, he'd get a telegram to come and put out a fire some place else.

One stormy dispute involved a lodge in Indianapolis where members protested so-called "chunkers" roughing out machinist work. The boss told O'Day that if he could not run his business to suit himself, he would close it up. O'Day reported "I told the men they had better help him, which they did by every man walking out."

Another strike of some interest today was touched off when the commanding officer of the Army Arsenal in Troy, New York, a certain Major Bryant, ordered machinists to run two machines. When he tried to enforce this order by firing two IAM members, every machinist in the shop walked out. O'Day sent a representative who got the Army and the men together in a face-saving solution. When the Commandant not to order men to run two machines, the men agreed to "obey orders." This was an early skirmish in a battle that continues to this day. Interestingly enough at the time no one seems to have even suggested that workers employed by the U.S. Government forfeited any right to strike. 

O'Day tried to keep the IAM clear of involvement in the Homestead strike, explaining "We were not in a financial position to fight for the principles of our own order and could not engage in the battles of others." Apparently this did not help his popularity with hotheads in the heavily industrialized Pittsburgh area who were eager to demonstrated labor solidarity against Carnegie, Frick, and the other steel barons. The generally unfavorable membership reaction to O'Day's handling of the Pennsylvania  Railroad and Homestead strikes may explain why he was not re-elected nor even re-nominated at the 1893 Grand Lode Convention in his home town of Indianapolis. The election was between James O'Connell of Oil City and James Barnes of Boston. Creamer was nominated but declined acceptance.

The abrupt and unexplained repudiation of O'Day may also have been triggered by the astounding news, in the middle of the Indianapolis Convention, that the Grand Treasurer, one J. J. Lamb, had secretly withdrawn the IAM's entire treasury, $5,300, from the bank and taken off for parts unknown. Pete Conlon later wrote that because of the embezzlement, "the international officers had to borrow . . . from their friends to get back to headquarters."

The Era of O'Connell

 

History


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