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History

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

The Era of O'Connell

Because of the embezzlement the new Grand Master Machinists, James O'Connell, had to start from scratch. Though membership growth was slowed by hard times, more than 350 lodges were now meeting regularly in forty-five states, five Canadian provinces, Mexico and the District of Columbia. Talbot, Creamer, and O'Day all helped to provide the IAM with a firm foundation although none stayed at the helm more than two years. It was now time for leadership that could provide continuity. That is what the IAM got from James O'Connell.

For the next eighteen years, longer than any other International President before or since, O'Connell began to shape the IAM into the organization it is today. . . .A goodly number of machinists attending the convention (Knights of Labor, 1886) met to talk about establishing a National Machinists District within the structure of the Knights. An effort to do so in New York failed because, in O'Connell's words, it was a "conglomerated mass" that extended beyond machinists to "all who were employed in the construction of machinery: including "helper boys" and "handymen."

By 1887 O'Connell was back in Oil City working for the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1890, still convinced that machinists needed a union of their own, he left the Knights, organized a lodge of Machinists and affiliated with the IAM. A year later he was named a delegate to the 1891 Grand Lodge Convention in Pittsburgh where he was elected to the first General Executive Board.

. . . .In appearance O'Connell was slim, dapper and elegantly handsome. In manner, however, he seems to have been some what aloof and distant. . . .An observer at the 1908 AFL convention. . . .described O'Connell as a "veritable iceberg," too cold blooded and deliberate to be a "true Irishman." But he also credited O'Connell with being sharp and shrewd in his dealings with employers and with "successfully managing the affairs of the International Association of Machinists, which has a record of being one the the best fighting labor organizations in the country." Although not an orator in the florid style of the time, he could deliver an effective stump speech. In reporting remarks he once made in Boston, a local newspaper noted that, "Mr. O'Connell riveted the attention of his audience through the force and strength of his personality."

Debs and The American Railway Union

 

History


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