A Journey Through Machinists Union History

Charting our future means knowing our past. The Machinists Union has a proud 130-year history of fighting for working people and championing human, labor and civil rights. The IAM has gone from humble beginnings in an Atlanta railyard to one of the most powerful advocates for workers the world has ever seen. It’s up to us to write our next chapter.

A Union is Born

1888: Tired of dealing with an abusive employer, Tom Talbot and 18 fellow machinists held a secret meeting in a railroad pit in Atlanta. Their desire to do something about dangerous work, long hours and unfair pay set into motion the founding of the Machinists Union.

After establishing “Lodge No. 1” in Atlanta, the IAM grew quickly, adding 34 local lodges in one year and increasing membership from 19 to 1,500. Within two years the union became “international” when the first Canadian and Mexican local lodges were chartered.

The organization these courageous men started has grown to one of the most powerful unions in North America, now consisting of 600,000 active and retired members in the U.S. and Canada.

A Union is Born

1911: Nine years before women gained the right to vote under the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, they were able to vote as full members of the IAM. At the recommendation of the third IAM President William O’Connell, delegates to the 1911 Convention changed the IAM Constitution to admit women to full membership.

Prior to 1911, there were women within the ranks of the IAM, dating all the way back to 1904, when Nellie T. Burke became the first women in the union when she initiated into IAM Local 210. At the time of the constitutional change, it was estimated there were 100 women in the IAM.

Today the Machinists Union is comprised of over 90,000 women..

The Gift of Mobility

1948: Retired IAM member Joseph Jones Sr. was tired of being turned down by all the existing guide dog schools due to his what they called his “advanced” age of 57. He turned to the organization that had always been there for him and approached the IAM Executive Council for help. The IAM endorsed the founding of International Guiding Eyes, which would later become the Guide Dogs of America.

The organization became one of the first guide dog schools to be founded by a blind individual and to adopt a policy against age discrimination.

Today, Guide Dogs of America graduates an average of 60 teams a year. Since its founding in 1948, Guide Dogs of America has provided the gift of mobility and freedom to nearly 3,300 blind or visually impaired recipients. IAM members across North America proudly donate time and money to fund the charity’s noble cause.

Marching for Civil Rights

1964: Union leader and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph was the lead organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Randolph spent decades fighting on behalf of workers, especially African-American workers, leading up to his founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925.

As President of the Sleeping Car Porters, he not only fought the Pullman Company, he also had to fight to get his union accepted into the American Federation of Labor who were hesitant to grant membership to people of color. Under the leadership of Randolph, the BSCP eventually won membership to the AFL in 1937.

The Sleeping Car Porters merged in 1978 with the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks, now known as the Transportation Communications Union, which fully merged with the IAM in 2012.

Educating the Next Generation
of Unionists

1981: IAM International President William W. Winpisinger had a vision of educating Machinists Union members as a way of assuring the IAM would continue to grow and flourish. That dream became a reality in 1980 when the IAM purchased a 70-acre piece of property in Hollywood, MD.

The first classes began in 1981 in the windowless basement of the building. A year later, construction began on new classrooms and administrative facilities. As the popularity of the center grew, so did the need for expansion. In 2001 the IAM invested in member education again by doubling the number of dormitories and educational spaces at Placid Harbor, bringing the total to 114 guest rooms, five dedicated classrooms, a theater, six conference rooms and two computer labs.

Today, nearly 100,000 members have attended programs at the proudly-named William W. Winpisinger Education and Technology Center. Programs are offered in three languages and over 40 of the classes have college credits. William Winpisinger’s vision of a union education facility has grown into the crown jewel of the IAM.

Freedom Rings in South Africa

1994: The Machinists have long supported movements for human and civil rights not only in North America, but across the world.

One of our efforts succeeded on April 27, 1994, when South Africa held its first national election in which non-whites were allowed to vote, electing civil rights icon Nelson Mandela. April 27 is now known as Freedom Day. Representatives from the IAM were in South Africa on that election day to monitor voter fraud.

The IAM had worked for decades alongside South African labor unions in their fight for workers throughout the country. The Machinists Union joined other North American unions in calling for the “selective disinvestment” from multi-national corporations whose operations bolstered the racist apartheid system.

With the support of the IAM and other international unions, the strength of South African organized labor grew from only 20,000 members in 1970 to over 1 million by 1985. This growth was key to a movement that would take down apartheid, a brutal system of racial segregation and discrimination.