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The fighting Machinists: a century of struggle.

Historian Robert Zieger once stated that labor's house has many rooms, inferring that the truncated state of labor literature creates a need for historical works. In the 1960's and 1970's, the more leftish interpretations held court and it carried over into the 1980's. Yet, institutional histories, writings highlighting the development of trade unions and their leaders, have appeared in the past few years. Walter Galenson's The United Brotherhood of Carpenters is an example of this revived institutional interest. Robert G. Rodden's The Fighting Machinists is not of the same caliber, but then it was not intended as such. It was written from the heart by a longtime member of the Machinists union for rank-and-file members.

Rodden's book charts the 96-year history (1888-1984) of the International Association of Machinists. It centers on the union's chief executives and the main events which shaped the union during their tenures. Originating im 1888, the IAM, the only international union with roots in the American South, experienced the typical problems associated with early American Federation of Labor craft organizations: economic fluctuations, wars, dual unionism, jurisdictional disputes, radicalism, internal dissention, and, of course, antiunion employers. The old Knights of Labor provided for foundations and many members for the Machinists union, but, unlike that body, the IAM grew as technological changes in society (railroads, automobiles, mass production, airlines) created new opportunities for skilled machinists and related trades. Until 1926, the union, with a constitutionally guaranteed referndum and a strong Socialist-Populist elan, was one of the most democratically functioning labor organizations. After 1926, changes in leadership moved the union toward a more conservative philosophy, but it never became authoritarian.

The history of the IAM is rich and colorful. It was organized by itinerant railroad machinists called "Boomers," and was among the first American unions to accept women as equals in both pay and social status. The union conducted some notable work stoppages, including the famous 1922 Shopmen's Strike against the railroad lines of E. H. Harriman, yet, in the same year, negotiated a famous labor-management cooperative agreement with executives of the B&O Railroad. The IAM struggled in the 1930's to retain a Gompersian philosophy while actively seeking to expand its membership in mass production industries. In the 1950's, President Al Hayes served as the paradigm for honest union leadership during a period marked by exposes of union corruption. In more recent times, the IAM has conducted important strikes against the airlines industry (1966), the railroads (1969), and the aerospace industry (1977).

Rodden's coverage of this episodic journey is extensive, based on excerpts from the Machinists Monthly Journal, selected monographic sources, and oral reminiscence by IAM officials. This latter resource paradoxically is the author's strength and weakness. As historian David Brody noted, "oral histories are merely what their informants volunteered." In addition, excerpts from the Machinists Monthly Journal are not counterbalanced by other trade union publications; the result is a very narrow point of view. IAM officials are "trustworthy," "loyal," and "dignified." Even when Rodden criticizes them, their halos tilt but do not tumble. Union dissidents, on the other hand, are described as "hotheads" while employers are always "haughty" and "imperious." U.S. President Warren G. Harding, in the author's words, was "empty-headed." Rodden has the core of an interesting and valuable book but fails to avoid the pitfalls endemic in one whose life blood runs in concordance with that of his subject. The author says that this history was written for the benefit of fellow machinists. That is the book's strength and also its weakness as history.
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Author:Guzda, Henry P.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1985
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