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Organizing the First Union at Bath Ironworks

Andy O’Brien
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This week marks the 90th anniversary of when workers at Bath Iron Works in Bath joined shipbuilders from Quincy, MA; Camden, NJ; Chester, PA; Wilmington DE and New London, CT to found the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America (IUMSWA), CIO in Camden, New Jersey on October 3, 1933. Their goal was to unite all shipyard workers — Black and white, men and women — regardless of their trade/craft or level of skill. As their founding document stated:

"Recognizing that craft unionism, as practiced in the past, has been proven to be both ineffective and dangerous to the interests of the workers, the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America advocates and practices the program and tactics of militant industrial unionism, based on the principle of One Industry-One Union. [IUMSWA] calls for the united front of all workers in the industry, regardless of creed, color, nationality, religion, sex or political affiliation. It bases itself upon the principle of rank and file control, unrestricted trade union democracy, and at all times an aggressive struggle for an ever higher standard of living.”

Union shipbuilders in Bath argued that they were the lowest paid workers in the industry and compared their working conditions to a “sweatshop.” In the IUMSWA newspaper, The Shipyard Worker, workers complained that there was "no such thing as a work week here as the whistle and calendar have been discarded [and] pay checks are based on whatever the management sees fit to pay.” The paper complained of blatant “favoritism” in the yard in terms of who got a raise or were promoted.

While IUMSWA Local 4 at BIW was issued a charter on Sept. 29, 1934, members didn’t have a collective bargaining agreement and its charter was suspended two years later due to weak leadership. According to The Shipyard Workers, Local 4 couldn’t find a hall anywhere in Bath to hold their meetings because "this town can't afford to do anything that [BIW President] Mr. [William S.] Newell doesn't approve of.” The company was virulently anti-union and fired shipbuilders for organizing.

Because they didn’t have a contract with a union security clause, IUMSWA stewards like welder Arthur Lebell had to find other employees at lunch breaks and outside of work to collect dues from them. The company vigilantly watched pro-union workers and when it came time for lay offs in 1935, Lebell was among the shipbuilders who were dismissed for union activity.

“And when I got laid off, my immediate supervisor told me that there must be a reason for you to get laid off,” recalled Lebell in a 1973 interview. “‘Arthur,’ he said, ‘you're doing good work.’ He said, ‘A union is alright to belong to, but not to have too much to say about.’ And it was obvious that I got laid off for union activity.”

Lebell went to work at the Four River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts for a year and a half before work picked up again at BIW and he was hired back.

As labor historian Charlie Scontras wrote in his book Labor in Maine: Building the Arsenal for Democracy shipbuilders resumed organizing in 1938 after being inspired by passage of the National Labor Relations Act, which made it US policy to encourage collective bargaining by protecting workers’ freedom of association. IUMSWA’s charter was restored that July with a membership of 500 shipbuilders.


What followed, writes Scontras, was “two decades of bitter rivalry” between IUMSWA, CIO and the more conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL). When the Metal Trades Council, AFL held a rally in Bath, CIO sympathizers were reportedly driven from the hall because they had accused the AFL of collaborating with management to defeat the industrial union.

The CIO claimed that the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, an AFL union, had sent invitations to the rally with the names of each employee, including supervisors and foremen, and their payroll numbers — information they could have only obtained from management.

“How did the A.F.L. get the names and clock numbers of every worker in the Bath Iron Works?” IUMSWA demanded to know.

IUMSWA claimed that the company sent out notices stating that it "was not committed in favor of any labor organization” to avoid being charged with an unfair labor practice with NLRB. However, according to The Shipyard Worker, an AFL representative admitted the company’s bias towards the AFL in stating that former Democratic Governor Louis J. Brann had introduced him to a company official.

In the first election for union recognition on December 21, 1938, the union was narrowly defeated as 861 workers voted against having a union, 819 voted for IUMSWA and 294 voted to affiliate with the Boilermakers. According to Arthur Lebell, who was then IUMSWA Local 4 President, the company defeated the union by posting a notice granting a five percent increase in pay and the first night shift premium pay at the yard just 24 hours before the secret ballot election. The workers who were “sitting on the fence” decided to vote against the union due to the last minute move.

Lebell said that while there had initially been strong pro-union sentiment at the shipyard, support for the CIO union weakened after about a thousand striking CIO shoe workers defied a court injunction on April 21, 1937 by peacefully marching across a bridge linking Lewiston and Auburn. Mayhem ensued as police violently attacked the crowd of mostly Franco-American women workers. Republican Governor Lewis Barrows called in the Maine Army National Guard to "restore order" following the violence.

The following month, a judge found CIO organizer Powers Hapgood and seven other strike leaders in contempt of the injunction and sentenced them to six-month prison terms. The decision was later overturned by the Supreme Judicial Court and Hapgood was released. But on June 29, 1937 CIO workers called off the strike for lack of resources and support.

“[Shipbuilders] knew that they couldn't do anything alone," said Lebell, "but prior to that there had been a shoe strike in the Lewiston-Auburn area that was pretty tragic in that it was unsuccessful and this was because the employers wouldn't abide by the National Labor Relations Act at the time. They had said it was unconstitutional and the phantom of this strike kind of frightened a lot of people who came from that area.”

In a report about the strike titled “The Fascist Boot Fits Maine," the American Civil Liberties Union wrote that "Maine is at least one hundred years behind the times in its labor laws. . . . The civil and constitutional rights that have been interfered with are: the right to organize, the right to strike, the right to picket, the right to bail, the right of adequate representation by counsel, freedom of speech, freedom from excessive punishment and the right to fair and impartial Justice."


Front page of the Portland Press Herald, April 23, 1937

In spite of a hostile business class and an anti-labor state government, the CIO was incredibly successful in unionizing Maine industries in the late 1930s and early 1940s. 

As Scontras writes, by 1942, the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA), CIO had won bargaining rights for 17,500 textile workers in 90 percent of the cotton industry in Maine, including the Pepperell Manufacturing Company (Biddeford), York Manufacturing Company (Saco), Saco-Lowell Machine Shop (Saco), Continental Mill (Lewiston), Androscoggin Mill (Lewiston), Hill Manufacturing Company (Lewiston), Bates Manufacturing Company (Lewiston), Lewiston Bleachery (Lewiston), and the Edwards Manufacturing Company (Augusta). In 1939, Bath Iron Works shipbuilders at the rapidly growing South Portland shipyard had organized with IUMSWA, CIO.

The BIW shipbuilders in Bath would prove to be a tougher nut to crack. But as the US dramatically ramped up production of warships to build President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s "The Arsenal of Democracy,” the vast majority of shipbuilders wanted to join a union. But the workers were deeply divided about about whether they wanted to join a conservative craft union or the militant CIO.

Tune in next week for the next installment of "Local S6 and the Spirit of the CIO!"