Shop Committees and the Right to Formal Union Representation, 1900-1942
Studying the History of Federal Workers
Approaches to Understanding Federal Labor History
Worker Representation
The Nineteenth Century
The Years before World War I
1902-1909: The “gag rules”
1912: The Lloyd-LaFollete Act
The Beginning of Shop Representation in the Navy Yards
Wage Boards Open Up to Labor
World War I and Work Councils
Navy Yard Shop Committees Are Organized
The Early Years of the Shop Committees
Resistance to the Shop Committee System Builds
The Navy Department Responds
Shop Committees Under the New Regulations
The Craft Unions Continue On as Before
Worker Agitation at Puget Sound Navy Yard: The Limits of Federal-Employee Labor Rights
The Shop Committees in the Brooklyn Navy Yard
Union Agitation over the Shop Committees Continues
The Philadelphia Navy Yard Election Experiment of 1937
Brooklyn Navy Yard Shop Committee Structure, 1925
Shop Trade Committee Representation, New York Navy Yard, 1929-1941
Studying the History of Federal Workers
It is well known that the history of U.S. government civilian workers [and to a similar extent state and municipal workers] differs greatly from that of workers in the private sector, such as in the establishment of basic working conditions like hours and wages, and as to their rights on the job, such as their prohibition from the ability to strike.  What is less known is why this is so.  The labor history of the U.S. federal sector has been poorly researched and even today little is known about the structure of its development.  By labor history I mean the story of the workers themselves, and NOT the organizational biography of the US Civil Service [of which there are a few good histories] or the voluminous industrial relations literature, which tends to treat workers as objects to be analyzed. [Two representative histories of the U.S. Civil Servid are: Robert Maranto and David Schultz, A Short History of the United States Civil Service (New York: University Press of America, 1991); Paul P. Van Riper, History of the United States Civil Service (Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson and Company, 1958)]

Maybe this lack of attention is due to labor historians' [of any stripe] focus on the traditional battle between capital and labor, with its well-developed liberal/Marxist, and developing social methodology.  Perhaps it is due to the relatively small percentage of people who work in the public sector as compared to Europe or to the relative recent growth of a full-fledged American civil service, or to the general distrust of the American state apparatus, whereas in Europe no matter the ideology of the country, its administrative basis is not questioned.  And then there is always the question of drama: has the inability of American civil servants to resort to dramatic actions such as striking also led to their history being bypassed by those interested in a history dominated by conflict?

Approaches to Understanding Federal Labor History
The history of private-sector labor relations has been dominated by the clash between owners and managers who seek to exercise their property rights in their businesses as they see fit and workers, who with their First-Amendment right to freely associate, have sought to resist being reduced to just another factor in production and have actively struggled to make the workplace an establishment more amenable to their interests.

In studying the history of federal workers one approach has dominated the historiography to date.  It posits the dynamic of government labor relations as a political dialectic between two competing interest groups: those who push for the government to be a "model employer," and those who desire it to be a "prevailing-standards employer." [The classics of the first approach are Sterling Spero, Government as Employer (New York: Remsen Press, 1948, reprinted 1971); Murray B. Nesbitt, Labor Relations in the Federal Government Sector (Washington: Bureau of National Affairs, 1976). This approach to studying federal labor history is not original with Spero; he took it straight from the workers themselves who had introduced the concept at least as far back as the early nineteenth century in their agitations over the ten-hour day.  The idea is most succinctly put in the report the president of the Metal Trade Department prepared for its convention in 1922:

“When speaking of the government as an employer the common understanding is that the government should be a model employer, furnishing employment to its employees at the highest standard of wages, the fewest working hours and the best possible working conditions, including sanitation, safety and human treatment.
‘The government should not attempt to follow after or to hold up as a criterion private conditions of employment but should establish a standard which private employers must come up to.”
[James O’Connell, “President’s Report,” Proceedings of the 14th Annual Convention of the Metal Trades Department, 1922. There is a second part to this statement: “And particularly should the government see to it that all its contracts let to private employers are let to firms where the conditions of employment are as good as those under which the government operates its own manufacturing plants.”]

The prevailing-standards model is as it seems: the government should not lead in establishing a labor code [read: one more favorable to workers than that offered by the private sector], but follow the example of private business.  This historical binary can be more complex than it first seems.  Before the second Roosevelt's administration the federal government had intervened only intermittantly in private-sector labor relations and its total wage and benefit package was often the envy of other workers.  However, after 1933, the government itself heavily influenced the development of  “prevailing standards” once it fully legalized unionized labor relations in the Wagner Act.  For instance, until commercial shipbuilding became highly unionized by 1940 and brought about higher wages, navy yard workers led the way in pay and the IUMSWA, the CIO shipbuilders' union, pointed to their wage schedules as a goal to obtain.  However, after 1940 wages in commerical shipbuilding began to overtake those in the navy yards and government shipbuilders then began to push for equality with the “prevailing” wages that the private companies and CIO and AFL unions were then negotiating. [For a brief history of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century federal-labor history see: Spero, Government as Employer.]

Another approach, drawn from political science, draws upon the inherent contradictions of government bureaucracy.  It too sees policy developing through a dialectic of competing interests, variously labeled as “efficiency versus effectiveness,” or “efficiency versus economy.”  An example of this would be the government's need to conserve its tax dollars as much as possible while simultaneously spreading its spending as generously as possible.  Although government labor policy is not mentioned in any of these arguments, the concept can be modified to include it.  Despite public pressure on the government to be a model employer on such issues as wages, benefits, and employment, in its internal shop and office labor relations executive agencies were still free to adopt authoritarian management styles which often ran counter to the professed goals of the civil service.  So,
while the first historical approach has its obvious value in describing the overall narrative of federal labor history, the second approach is generally more helpful in analyzing shop-floor  relations, e.g., in our case, such as showing how the government and the Navy Department, while ostensibly attempting to advance merit, often ended up in producing a shop environment that workers saw as anything but meritorious. [Patricia Wallace Ingraham, The Foundation of Merit: Public Service in American Democracy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1995); Dwight Waldo, The Administrative State: A Study of the Political Theory of American Public Administration (New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1948); James W. Fesler, Donald F. Kettl, The Politics of the Administrative Process, 2nd ed. (Chatham: Chatham House Publishers, 1996); Arthur M. Okun, Equality and Efficiency, The Big Tradeoff (Washington: Brooklings Institute, 1975).]

Crucial to understanding this history, as with all public-labor history—and especially in the period under examination—is the political concept known as the sovereignty doctrine.  As to labor relations it was expressed in mostly a negative fashion--what workers cannot do--and is not well developed theoretically in the historical literature, although it is analyzed at length in the social sciences.  In essence, the doctrine claimed that the government could not recognize and bargain with employee organizations such as unions as it owed a special sovereign duty to the public that would be broached by negotiating with individual groupings of that public.  This is the rationale for what the doctrine is still most famous for: the denial to federal, and most public employees, of the right to strike.  Just as important, the government could also pass legislation that either at times gave federal employees benefits superior to those in the private sector, or to exempt itself from laws passed to improve the labor and social rights of private-sector workers.  [As an analytic category, public-sector labor history also includes state and local level governments, and in practice the term “public-sector” labor history has come to mean non-federal government employees. Robert Shaffer, “Where Are the Organized Public Employees? The Absence of Public Employee Unionism From U.S. History Textbooks, and Why It Matters,” Labor History (August 2002).  On the sovereignty doctrine, see:  Ann Ross, "Public Employee Unions and the Right to Strike" Monthly Labor Review (March 1969); B.V.H. Schneider, "Collective Bargaining and the Federal Service" Industrial Relations (May 1964); Schneider, "Public-Sector Labor Legislation in an Evolutionary Analysis," in Public Sector Bargaining, 2nd ed., eds. by Benjamin Aaron, et al. (Washington: Bureau of National Affairs, 1988); Louis V. Imundo, Jr., "Strikes and the Strike Issue in Federal Government Labor-Management Relations" Personnel Management (May 1973); David H. Rosenbloom, Federal Service and the Constitution: The Development of the Public Employment Relationship (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971); Grace Sternet and Antone Aboud, The Right to Strike in Public Employment, 2nd ed. (Ithaca: ILR Press, 1982); Kurt L. Hanslowe, The Emerging Law of Labor Relations in Public Employment (Ithaca: ILR Press, 1967); Morton Robert Godine, The Labor Problem in the Public Service: A Study in Political Pluralism (New York: Russell & Russell, 1951); Spero, Government as Employer.  The sovereignty doctrine can be traced back as least as Hobbes's Leviathan: "The sovereign of a commonwealth ... is not subject to the civil laws.  for having power to make, and repeal lasws, he may when he pleaseth, free himself from that subjection, by repealing those laws that trouble him, and making of new[.]]

Simultaneously, unlike in the private sector the government could not hinder--at least not overtly--the right of its workers to associate with whomever they wished, although it was under no legal obligation to negotiate with its representatives.  Neither acknowledged nor suppressed, trade unions therefore held something of a shadow existence in many government job sites although they could exert themselves vigorously in lobbying Congress.  In the trades, such as the naval shipyards, this relationship stretched back to the 1830s.  Unions finally came to the fore in the yards as in the rest of the federal government when Kennedy's executive order of 1962 created a package of union rights, more limited than that possessed by the private sector, but which did allow for solely-recognized units for the purpose of bargaining. [Spero, Government As Employer; Lynda Tepfer Carlson, "The Closing of the Brooklyn Navy Yard: A Case Study in Group Politics," Ph.D. diss. (U. Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1974); Hugh G. J. Aitken, Taylorism at Watertown Arsenal: Scientific Management in Action, 1908-1915 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960), is particularly effective in describing aggrieved unions' petitioning of politicians; Theodore Zaner, "Did the Right to Bargain Collectively Precipitate the Closure of the Brooklyn Navy Yard?" Personnel Administration (July-August 1967); Marvin Levine and Eugene Hapsburg, Public Sector Labor Relations (St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1979); President's Task Force on Employee-Management Relations in the Federal Service, "A Policy for Employee-Management Cooperation in the Federal Service," Washington, November 30, 1961.]

Worker Representation

The Nineteenth Century
There is no issue of greater importance in the history of labor relations than that of workers' representation, expressed most notably through their unions.  As has been noted, the important dates, themes, and dynamics of federal-labor history have often differed from that of the private sector.  There have been only a few case studies written of government labor history in the nineteenth century before the creation of the formal U.S. civil service system.
[Cindy Sondik Aron, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Civil Service: Middle-Class Workers in Victorian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Matthew A. Crenson, The Federal Machine: Beginnings of Bureaucracy in Jacksonian America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975);  James J. Farley, Making Arms in Machine Age: Philadelphia's Frankford Arsenal, 1816-1870 (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994); Merritt Rose Smith, Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology: The Challenge of Change (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977). Also see Spero, and John Common's volumes on American labor history.]  Through most of the nineteenth century most federal workers were not treated that much differently than those in the private sector.  This was especially true for trade workers, who were hired and fired at will.  There were even a few contracts among some trades, such as the printers in the Treasury and GPO, in the District of Columbia.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, federal trade workers even went on strike from time to time, without it appearing to be anything out of the ordinary.  But there were some significant differences even then.  One was the workers and their unions' strength in Congress and the executive office, which had resulted in federal workers achieving the ten-, then the eight-hour day, and pay scales were mandated either directly by Congress or through government-established wage boards.  This aspect of federal-labor relations remains with us to this day.  But another aspect of government workers' history was unique to the era: patronage.  Despite its contemporary infamy and that its abuse directly led to the creation of the civil service its workings on the shop and office level have been little explored.  One question that needs answering, for instance, is how could workers who owed their jobs to politicians strike?  Was it when the party in power was not the party of the workers locally?  Was there a real operating doctrine of sovereignty in these years or was it more an invention or develepment of the progressives?

It is well-known that there was a relation between the creation and development of the Civil Service and the Progressive movement.  Reacting to Gilded Age excesses, progressives, in their typical fashion, progressives attempted to create an incorruptible personnel system based on what they thought was a neutral and scientifically measurable term: merit.  In so doing, by trying to take the human element out of labor relations, they permanently set up a system that their successors have been trying to “fix” ever since.  Needless to say, the civil service had no place for unions, and perhaps it could be called the ultimate company union.  [A fuller discussion of merit will be left to the section on efficiency ratings.]

As to the navy yard workers in the nineteenth century, as might be expected, wood trade unions, such as the shipwrights predominated among the organized employees.  But with the growth of a steel navy by the turn of the twentieth century these crafts fell to minor status in shipbuilding.  In their place rose the metal trades unions.  Among them, two played powerful roles in the new navy yards, the International Association of Machinists (IAM), and the Boilermakers, who claimed jurisdiction not only in the engine rooms but as their title--the Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders and Helpers of America-- says, but over all the major hull-building trades.

In this year the President by executive order had the Navy Department's white-collar employees “scheduled” [brought] into the civil service.  These positions were individually established by Congress and shared the characteristics of other federal white-collar jobs.  The president had wanted to bring the trades into the civil service too but their situation was more complicated as they had certain institutions such as the wage boards, whose structures were antithetical to civil service merit principles.  For the time being, the trades were placed into a sort of administrative limbo in that they were not scheduled in but the Navy was also not permitted to change the regulations for its civil employees without receiving Civil Service permission.

For the next generation or so the trades still retained the ability to strike without incurring the full wrath of the government.  There was a famous strike in the Watertown arsenal in 1911, and another in the Norfolk navy yard in 1912, over the introduction of scientific management, and a strike over wages in the chain shop of the Boston Navy Yard in the summer of 1914. [Hugh G. J. Aitken, Taylorism at Watertown Arsenal: Scientific Management in Action, 1908-1915 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960); Frederick R. Black, Charlestown Navy Yard, 1890-1973 (Boston: Boston National Historical Park, 1988.]

The Years before World War I
A civil service advocate from his earliest professional days, President Theodore Roosevelt played a key role in the development of federal labor relations.  In 1903 he essentially made the government an open shop when he unilaterally dissolved the union work rules, [not sure if it was an actual contract or not] in the GPO, when a dispute arose over whether the printers' union could have a worker dismissed from his job after being expelled from the union. [Paul P. Van Riper, History of the United States Civil Service]

1902-1909: The “gag rules”
During his administration T. Roosevelt set further, and punitive, ground rules for federal labor relations with his series of “gag-rules,” which he promulgated through executive orders. He issued his first in 1902 in reaction to organized agitation by postal employees for better working conditions:
“All officers and employees of the United States of every description, serving in or under any of the executive departments, and whether so serving in or out of Washington, are hereby forbidden, either directly or indirectly, individually, or through associations, to solicit an increase of pay or to influence or attempt to influence in their own interests any legislation whatever, either before Congress or its committees or in a way save through the heads of the depts in or under which they serve, on penalty of dismissal form the government service.” [MMJ, March 1902]  In 1906 Roosevelt extended this prohibition to independent government agencies.

In 1909 President Taft forbade federal employees from responding to Congressional requests except through their department heads.  It appears, however, that these gag-rules, despite their all-encompassing language, applied only to those unions that were composed solely of federal unions, such as was the case with the postal workers.  When the trade unions complained about the gags, Roosevelt told them that the law did not cover them. [Spero; Nesbitt]

1912: The Lloyd-LaFollete Act
Workers and their unions chafed at the restrictions.  Their resultant agitation pushed Congress to pass the Lloyd-LaFollete Act of 1912.  Enacted as an amendment to the postal appropriations bill, it was quickly extended to cover the entire federal service.  The following two sentences from it lay the basis for federal labor relations for the next fifty years.

“That membership in any society, association, club, or other form of organization of postal employees not affiliated with any outside organization imposing an obligation or duty upon them to engage in any strike, or proposing to assist them in any strike, against the United States, having for its objects, among other things, improvements in the condition of labor of its members, including hours of labor and compensation therefor and leave of absence, by any person or groups of persons in said postal service, or the presenting by any such person or groups or persons of any grievance or grievances to the Congress or any Member thereof shall not constitute or be cause for reduction in rank or compensation or removal of such person or groups of persons from said service.  The right of persons employed in the civil service of the United States, either individually or collectively, to petition Congress, or to any committee or member thereof, shall not be denied or interfered with.” [Public, No. 336]

Note that the clause only prohibits federal employees from belonging to organizations that advocate the right to strike the government.

This law also codified the right of federal employees to due process, even though the worker's inability to appeal beyond the department level did mute the language's overall impact:
“No person shall be removed therefrom except for such cause as will promote the efficiency of said service and for reasons given in writing, and the person whose removal is sought shall have notice of the same and of any charges preferred against him, and be furnished with a copy thereof, and also be allowed a reasonable time for personally answering the same in writing; and affidavits in support thereof; but no examination of witnesses nor any trial or hearing shall be required except in the discretion of the officer making the removal.” [Public, No. 336]

When Taft became president in 1909 he cut the navy yard trades loose from the civil service.  But after losing the 1912 election to Wilson, he scheduled them into the civil service (December).  Unable to reconcile the two sets of personnel rules the Civil Service created a new hybrid set of regulations just for the navy yard trades that incorporated the older rules into the civil service allowing them to substitute for those parts of the new rules that conflicted with them. [U.S.C.S.C., "Regulations Governing the Employment of Civil Personnel in the Field Service of the Navy Department and the Marine Corps," 1912]

In these years trade unions were once again able to show their strength in Washington when they persuaded Congress to open an investigation into the practice of scientific management.  Both the War and Navy Departments had experimented with it in some of their shops.  As a result of the investigation Congress passed a law in 1915 prohibiting the use of time-clocks and bonus payments, two central elements of scientific management, in the two agencies, effectively blocking the use of Taylorism in government agencies employing civilian workers. (The Navy Department however did use scientific management consultants to help it organize procedures on its warships.) [Aitken; Scientific American, 191x]

The Beginning of Shop Representation in the Navy Yards
Wilson became president in March 1913.  He appointed the progressive Josephus Daniels as Secretary of the Navy, and he in turn brought in Franklin Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary.  As a group they proved to be more sympathetic to federal labor than had their Republican predecessors.  Notably, they established a system whereby navy yard workers were granted the right to elect their own representatives in their shops.

Wage Boards Open Up to Labor
Up to this point the Navy Department had determined the wages of its civilian trade workers through wage boards, wherein each shore establishment surveyed the prevailing wages in their respective areas in private-sector businesses that performed work similar to that done in the naval sites.  The local Commandant collected the information, made his own recommendations and passed along the material to a national wage board which in turn made its recommendations to the Secretary who made the ultimate decision.  The procedure was mostly a secretive one.  Workers' representatives, for the most part union, could submit their own data and recommendations but collectively had no role to play in the process nor were they privy to the official discussions.

With war already under way in Europe, Franklin Roosevelt decided in 1915 to conduct national wage board hearings in which workers and their representatives could testify and to allow a representative appointed by the AFL to sit on it.  In the navy yards groups of related trades elected representatives to present their data at local formal hearings.

World War I and Work Councils
During the war the shortage of labor and the corresponding inexperience of people brought into the industrial workplace, coupled with inflation and strikes, led the government for the first time to create mediating bodies to establish industrial harmony.  These organizations, such as the National War Labor Board, established in April 1918, and the Shipbuilding Labor Adjustment Board, set up in December 1917, encouraged the creation of work councils at individual work sites.  These national boards had equal numbers of industry and organized labor representatives plus one or more “nonpartisan” members sitting on them.  As part of the arrangement governing their use labor agreed not to strike and management agreed not to lock-out its workers for the war's duration.  The right to organize into unions without employer interference was guaranteed as was the right of businesses to organize itself as it saw fit. [“Characteristics of Company Unions, 1935,” Bulletin, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1938]

These labor boards often called for the creation of shop committees in individual shops to resolve grievances.  Typically a committee had a representative for each 100 workers or major fraction thereof and its election was conducted in secret.  No discrimination against committee representatives was permitted.  Generally the committees considered problems not resolved at the local level although they could bring up any company-wide situation they wished to discuss.  A grievance system was set up wherein a dispute was first sent to a joint employee-employer committee, then if unresolved went to the department head, and then finally placed in a senior company’s hands for disposition.  But such managerial powers such as hiring and firing, and the direction of production were kept beyond the purview of these committees. [ibid.]

The AFL was initially of mixed mind about the councils but by 1920 it came out against them, declaring them company unions, and in their conventions of 1926 and 1928 condemned them and company unions in general.  During the Hoover years the need for company unions declined as the workers’ need to keep their job at any cost outweighed all other factors for wage earners.  This direction was halted and reversed in June 1933 with the passage of the NIRA, with its famous section 7a.  Companies reacted to the new law by setting up company unions in record number in order to forestall legitimate organizing.  By 1935 about two-thirds of the company unions then in existence had been set up during the brief NIRA years.  The Wagner Act, passed in that year, made such company-controlled organizations illegal. [ibid.]

Navy Yard Shop Committees Are Organized
In the navy yards the mandate of the workers' wage board committees soon expanded to discuss other matters such as production, working conditions, and grievances.  After the war ended the committees continued to meet and in 1919 ASN Roosevelt confirmed their existence as permanent bodies when he ordered local navy yard officials to meet with them.  In 1920 he presented proposals to formalize the shop trade committee system in the shore establishments, wherein elected trade delegates would meet to discuss current issues with their shop Master, and, periodically a central Shop Committee would talk with the Commandant.  The original composition of the ship trade committees seemed promising to the trade unions.  While they did not offer formal recognition they did allow a de facto union presence in the navy yards. [Letter, F. D. Roosevelt, June 1919; Frey Papers; Frey, “The Official Standing of Trade Unions and Trade Unions Committees in Navy Yards,” Bulletin of the Metal Trades Department, April 1935.]   In June 1920 Secretary Daniels informed the Philadelphia Navy Yard Commandant that it was Department policy for local commanding officers to receive elected committees of “labor men, [including union staff]” and to hear them out in order to maintain the “amiable relations” that would advance yard interests, and in December 1920 he reaffirmed “the right of shop committees to speak for the men in the shop.” [Letter, Daniels, June 1920; “Shop Elections”; Frey Papers.]

The new Republican administration of Warren Harding set up the formal system of navy yard shop committees in August 1921 in a report drawn up by the national wage board, which included the president of the AFL's Metal Trades Department.  But in December 1921, as the AFL later claimed, the yards' commandants and managers held a conference on navy yard organization at which, as one of the items on the agenda, they unilaterally worked out the implementation of the shop committee system.

Navy Yard management could not openly interfere in shop elections, but they did decide that they had the right to determine that the committees in their yards were in good standing with their shops.  To assure this, the yards would supervise the representatives’ elections, which were to done by secret ballot.  Only those so elected could meet with the Commandant at a monthly meeting on company time.  All other worker groups, and this meant unions, retained the ability to meet with management as “has been the custom of the past,” but they could not sit in on the monthly meetings and they could speak only for their members, and do so only on their own time.  Shop committees became separate entities from the elected wage committees, with a declared purpose of helping to improve working conditions, with an emphasis on increasing efficiency.  This reorganization angered the unions, especially as union locals often selected representatives to meet with management openly at meetings in their halls.  [Machinists' Monthly Journal, December 1932; “Conference held at Navy Department, 28 November to 2 December 1921”;  RG80; NA-DC; “Election of [BNY] Shop Committees,”  July 1929; RG181; NA-NY.]

The Early Years of the Shop Committees
The establishing memorandum of 31 August 1921 allowed for local initiative and each navy yard set up its own means of holding its election.  For instance, in 1926 the Norfolk navy yard held shop elections semi-annually whereas the Brooklyn navy yard workers elected their delegates annually.

The BNY conducted shop elections in July for delegates to serve a one-year term, commencing 1 August.  The Commandant, Admiral Plunkett, laid out the following instructions:
-- As the committees were to be a "proper means of representation for the employees,” the men elected “must be the representative of the majority of the employees in any shop or trade.”
-- The Commandant “suggested” that in order for a committee to be representative they follow an enumerated plan.
    -- Election would be held over the lunch break, and be by secret ballot.
    -- Two tellers for each shop--one chosen by the shop committee's chairman, the other by the shop Master, would oversee each shop's election.
    -- The Master was to sign off on his shop's election returns and forward the results to the Manager.
    -- Each shop committee was to be proportional to the size of its shop and would be elected by a simple plurality.  It was left to the members of each shop having multiple trades to decide for itself how to portion its delegates among its various constituencies, and each shop could also decide whether or not to allow its helpers a separate voice.
-- After the election the committees from each of the five administrative divisions of the Yard would meet to select one member each to sit on an executive committee and they in turn would select a chairman.
-- Delegates had the right to submit “petitions and grievances” to division heads or to the Manager or Commandant.
-- So that only important items, and not “petty and personal” grievances would be discussed at shop meetings, committee members could meet only “outside of working hours” to organize their meeting agendas.  (Apparently Yard management thought that the workers would self-censor in order not to stay too long after work.)
-- The executive committee would then present its petitions or grievances to management on a monthly basis “during working hours.”  [“Election of Shop Trades Committee,” Memo, Commandant, [BNY] To Be Posted, July 1925; RG181; NA-NY. See Link A for structure of committees.]

As should be obvious, this system left little autonomy to the workers and their representatives.  Nevertheless, at least in the Brooklyn Navy Yard relations between the shop committees and management at first seemed cordial.  The organized workforce wanted the Brooklyn Metal Trades Council to be their official voice in talking to management, but as the AFL's Metal Trade Department later admitted, in many navy yards, including the BNY, unionized workers had the strength to ensure the election of their members to the committees, in effect making the local MTC labor's agent in the Yards in all but name.

For the BNY, the personality of the commandant may well also have contributed to labor harmony.  Admiral Plunkett, the BNY commandant for much of the mid-1920s was a popular leader.  There are transcripts in the files for some of the earliest shop executive committee meetings and they show the commandant to be a rather gruff but willing participant in the meetings, forthcoming on the navy's needs and his expectations of his workers.  But the meetings are obviously under his control and when the admiral said a discussion was finished it was finished. [Letter, Frey, to H. Roosevelt, August 1934; Frey Papers; Frey, “The Official Standing of Trade Unions and Trade Union Committees in Navy Yards,” Bulletin of the Metal Trades Department, April 1935.  There are transcripts for shop committee meetings from January 1923 through July 1924 in the BNY archives; RG181; NA-NY.]

Through the mid-1920s, elections results at the Brooklyn yard show mostly full slates elected for all shops, and that the conduct of these elections was quite informal.  Each shop returned its results per the regulations, but they were not consistent in how they reported.  Most reports show the total number of eligible voters, the number that did vote, and list the candidates in the order of their vote.  While many returns show that the winners received a majority of those eligible to vote in the shop, some other shops elected their representatives by a plurality of those who voted, no matter how small a percentage of the shop the voters might have been.  In at least one shop, the patternmakers, where only two candidates put themselves forward, they were in one case elected by one token vote, and in another elected by acclamation.

It is difficult to surmise simply from what exists in the archives, but the labor relations folder for the years 1925-1928 is exceedingly skimpy, holding only ten pieces of paper, quite different from the size of the corresponding folders for later years, perhaps suggesting that grievances were successfully handled through the committee system.
["Reports," Shop Trades Committees Elected July 1925; July 1926; July 1927; RG181; NA-NY] Some examples: in the 1926 elections, in the power plant, of 75 eligibles, 55 voted, and the three winning delegates received 36, 22, and 14 votes.  The two patternmakers were elected by acclamation.  The electricians had 91 eligibles; 69 ballots were cast, and the winners received 25, 23, and 9 votes.  The reports for the machinists and shipwrights do not list the number of eligible voters.  The shipfitters had 199 eligible; 131 voted, and the top five got 40, 39, 25, 16, and 7.  In the 1927 elections the 168 shipfitters voted out of 383 eligible [due to the Pensacola] and returned delegates with vote counts of 75, 20, 17, 13, 13. "Reports," 1926, 1927; P8-1; RG181; NA-NY.]

Resistance to the Shop Committee System Builds
At least by 1926 however, worker resistance to the committee system had begun in other navy yards.  The Norfolk navy yard commandant told his fellow commandants that at his yard non-unionized workers were running for and being elected to the shop committees.  In response, the unionized workers had started boycotting the elections, for their unions forbade them from sitting on committees with non-union labor. [Letter, Commandant, Norfolk Navy Yard, to the Commandant, NY Navy Yard, June 1926; RG181; NA-NY.]
A committee of three officers and three workers in the Norfolk yard discussed the problem and in May 1928 released a report that was not favorable to the goals of organized labor.  It said that government policy could not allow even de facto recognition.  Everyone had the right to run in elections as the government could not discriminate among its employees as to affiliation.  Therefore, committee elections had to be held in the navy yard (and not in union halls) in order to determine the will of the workers.  Further, representation was to be by shop, not by trade.  And to make the government's intentions quite clear the report stated that “no Yard committee can commit the employees it represents to any attitude or action.  It is merely a means of cooperative communication between the management and the employees.”  As the report noted, the shop committee system was not exclusive.  Policy still permitted individuals and representatives of organizations to approach management on their own time, although only to speak for their respective selves or memberships. [“Employees' Conference,” Commandant's Order, Norfolk Navy Yard, May 1928; RG181; NA-NY.]

Having non-union workers sit on committees with unionized workers was an anathema to the Metal Trades Department and at their November 1927 convention they declared by a unanimous vote that their union members should abstain from participating in such shop committees.  The delegates amended their constitution to read that “no member of a local union affiliated with a metal trades council shall take any part in the election of shop committees where non-union employees are given the right to vote in such elections by the management.”

The MTD lacked the power to enforce such a decision on its member bodies and not all union locals adhered to it.  The metal trades conducted a survey in the summer of 1928 that revealed elections still being held in the Puget Sound, Portsmouth, Philadelphia, Norfolk, and New York navy yards, and that in the latter three their committees still met monthly with management.  At other yards, such as Boston, the shop committee system had become defunct.
At its convention in 1928 the MTD discussed the situation again and passed a resolution demanding “strict observance” of the policy and that it would inform government officials of their decision to boycott the elections.  To the metal trade unions it was a matter of principle: labor's basic right to an autonomous representative voice was paramount.  “We protest to and deny the right of representatives of the government to dictate to or interfere with the right of the employees to select the kind of character of organization the employees in the service of the government may select as the medium through which they desire to be represented.” [Letter, (President) O'Connell and (Sec.-Treas.) Frey, to Navy Yard Metal Trades Councils, December 1928; Letter, from Frey, to McMurray, BMTC, June 1928; “Shop Elections”; Frey Papers.]
The Navy Department Responds
In 1928 the Navy Department unilaterally amended its shop-committee election policy.  In the BNY the commandant posted notices to let the workers know that although the Yard would continue “the custom of the past” of meeting with independent trade committees on their own time, the procedure for the year's shop elections was to revised drastically.  As the committees represented the majority of a shop's workers, “each committeeman [now had to] be elected by a majority of the men entitled to vote in the shop, it is not enough that they represent a majority of those voting.”  A shop not meeting this mandate would be denied its committee.

The hierarchy for grievance-handling was now spelled out in greater detail.  Each shop committee chairman had to deal with its master or supervisor in “matters of purely local interest,” and not take up matters with the officer superintendent unless the first step did not resolve the problem.  Only matters of general interest could go to the executive committee for deliberation. The Yard also reorganized some of the shop jurisdictions for the purpose of the elections and the commandant recommended that the shops elect smaller committees than before, saying that a committee no bigger than two or three, if of “the right caliber” could successfully represent the largest shop. [“Election of Shop Committees,” Memo, from the Commandant, to All Concerned, June 1928; P8-1; RG181; NA-NY.]

Shop Committees Under the New Regulations
In BNY's election that year, the first under the new rules, not all shops returned representatives.  Two shops' results were thrown out due to technicalities and no candidates received majority votes in the electrical, ordnance, inside machine, and central tool shops.  It appeared that some Masters had even interfered in the process by pressing for the committees in their shop to be of a preferred size.
Yard management decided to hold new elections in those shops that had failed to elect delegates.  The affected shops held a second, and this time successful, round of elections.  But then the four machinists elected in the first round resigned, as did the newly-elected ordnance machinist.  The Machinery Shop Superintendent recommended that the latter shop go without representation, and the inside and outside machine shops be represented only by their helper representatives, who had not quit.  With the exception of the ordnance machinists, the Brooklyn yard declared a full slate of delegates elected.  [Memorandum, from Shop Superintendent, July 1928; Memorandum, from Construction Officer, July 1928; Memos, from the Shop Superintendent, Machinery Division, August 1928; “Shop Committees Elected, 1 August 1928”; RG181; NA-NY.]

That was the only time BNY management attempted to complete shop elections under the new regulations.  After that, many shops either boycotted the elections or returned a minority of votes, and Yard management did not conduct second elections.  Those shops that did not return delegates thereafter went without representation by shop committees.

The election results from 1929 on are shown in Link B.  With only one exception the two most important groups of shops, the machinists and the shipfitters, opted out altogether from participation for the rest of the inter-war years. (A different system came into existence during World War II.)  Some metal-trade shops had a more sporadic participation in the period up to 1937 and other shops ignored the call to boycott the shop committee elections.

Extant records do not appear to exist that would explain why those shops which continued to vote chose to do so, but a look at those shops continuing to participate shows that they were mostly building trades or from among the various IVb-staffed offices.  One can speculate, that given the autonomy of American trade unions, that the building-trade unions (some of which also held membership in the MTD, like the electricians)--in the navy yards often called the [ship] finishing trades and who also served in the public works department--might not have felt themselves bound by MTD rulings, even if they belonged to the BMTC.  It is possible too that the election results might also reflect union strength in the shops, for as we shall see in another section, the BMTC launched new organizing campaigns in some of the Yard's shops in the late 1930s.

The Craft Unions Continue On as Before
Many boycotting craft unions chose to maintain their trade committees and insist, at least on paper, that their elected representatives spoke for their shop or trade.  There are numerous letters in the archives, like the one from July 1929 in which George Read, the recording secretary of lodge 556, the Brooklyn yard's machinists' local, notified the Manager at the time of the shop committee elections that they had elected six representatives to speak for the 650 machinists in the three machine shops and the central tool room.  The Commandant noted the correspondence but responded that the delegates could hold no status as official committees as there was no proof that the election represented the majority will in the shops.  Naval management would meet with the committee per policy but only on off-time and that the committee could only speak for its members.  Management's message was clear: the strength of a shop's trade committee did not matter; it could represent all but a handful of workers in a shop, but as long as it did not participate in shop elections it would not be considered a legitimate shop committee. [Letter, Mead, to Industrial Manager, July 1929; Reply, from the Commandant, July 1929. The right of access to management by non-shop committees was periodically restated throughout this period, e.g.: Memo, from  Manager, to Heads of Departments, February 1934; RG181; NA-NY; Frey, “Official Standing of Trade Unions;” Frey Papers.]
Worker Agitation at Puget Sound Navy Yard: The Limits of Federal-Employee Labor Rights
Union agitation against the shop committee system came to a head in 1934, provoked by events in the Puget Sound Navy Yard, in Bremerton, Washington.  In March of that year the Bremerton Metal Trades Council informed John Frey, the Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL's Metal Trades Department, that some of the Yard's shops still participated in shop elections and that the local commandant and his staff refused to meet with union committees.  This situation made it difficult for them to appeal to non-union workers to join up if they could claim no advantage for so doing.

Frey found himself at something of a loss at how to proceed.  He had met several times already with the new naval administration to argue against the committee system and had argued, so far to no avail, that the government should honor the Norris-LaGuardia anti-injunction act and section 7a of the NRA on its own work sites.  In addition, he had received reports that the management at some navy yards was even harassing duly-elected shop delegates by means of such tactics as deducting the time spent at meetings from their efficiency rating for quantity of work. [(John Frey: Vice-President of Iron Molders, 1900-1950; Secretary-Treasurer, MTD, 1927; President, 1934-1950. He was an arch advocate of craft unionism and was one of the AFL's chief spokesmen against the CIO. Craig Phelan, William Green: Biography of a Labor Leader (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989); Ruth L. Horowitz, Political Ideologies of Organized Labor: The New Deal Era (New Brunswick: Transactions Books, 1978). Letter, Frey, Schwartz, Bremerton MTC, April 1934; Letter, Schwartz and Callahan, March 1934; “Shop Elections. Navy Yards, 1928-1934"; Frey Papers; Manuscript Room; Library of Congress.]

When Frey did not reply immediately, the Bremerton Council took matters into their own hands in August 1934 by submitting a complaint against the shop committee system to the commandant.  The council leaders stated that the only proper means of worker representation was one decided by the workers themselves.  Such a group would be of more worth to management in terms of cooperation than any other form of organization.  “An organization which is not formed by the employees themselves is one which they are not wholly responsible for, and therefore it must be an organization which, because of its very character, fails to respond to the best interests of the employees and the Government.”  There was no right more “basic” than the right to organize.  “The whole structure of our American civilization is based upon the right of free men to form voluntary associations for lawful purposes.”  Workers needed self-organization to obtain the necessary information [from the union as a whole] to make sense of their problems, to protect their interests, and to “properly select” those who would defend their interests.  Local collective action required combining with organizations larger than themselves, such as labor unions. [The letterhead on their stationary lists the following component groups of the Metal Trades Council of Bremerton: Blacksmiths and helpers, Boilermakers and Iron Shipbuilders, Carpenters and Joiners, Electrical Workers, Government Employees, Machinists, Molders, Operating Engineers, Ordnancemen, Patternmakers, Plumbers and Steamfitters, Sheet Metal Workers, Teamsters and Chauffeurs, Technical Engineers and Draftsmen.  Letter, MTC of Bremerton, to Commandant, Puget Sound Navy Yard, August 1934; “Shop Elections,” Frey Papers.]

The Council copied Frey on the letter, and demanded that he obtain them recognition in their navy yard.  Council president H.W. Schwartz even wondered if the MTD considered their problem a serious one.  Frey more or less admitted to the Council's charge, saying that since the onset of the Depression and the passage of the Economy Acts that the MTD had put its priorities into combating unemployment and fighting for wage restoration.  But Frey told the council that in response to its letter he had written to the ASN to ask that commandants meet with MTC committees when requested. [Letter, from Schwartz, to Frey, August 1934; Reply, August 1934; “Shop Elections,” Frey Papers.]

ASN Herbert L. Roosevelt replied quickly but only repeated Department policy on the matter.  Frey, by now president of the MTD, spent much of the following year attempting to resolve the issue.  After meeting a few more times with the Navy Department without results he turned to the Labor Department for aid.  Secretary of Labor Perkins sent two top Labor officers to discuss the matter with the Navy and to advise them that the refusal to give MTCs full recognition was “contrary to good policy, and contrary to the condition existing in the other Departments of the Government.”  This statement was actually a bit of adroit political hedging as no government agency awarded recognition in the sense that the AFL would acknowledge and should be interpreted as ad admonition against ignoring the MTCs in the navy yards. [Letter, HL Roosevelt, to Frey, August 1934; “Shop Elections”; Letter, Frey, to Schwartz, November 1934; Frey Papers.]

This inter-department appeal failed and Frey moved on to speak to President Roosevelt's executive assistant, Colonel Howe, and that, seemingly, did the trick.  In February 1935 Frey and the White House agreed upon a new set of regulations for the shop committee system and on 16 March 1935 the ASN sent out a letter explaining the new policy, which contained several important revisions.  Of particular importance for the unions, commanding officers were now instructed in writing to receive workers' representatives other than shop committees, including outside representatives [i.e., union staff].  Further, the mandate that a delegate receive a majority vote of the total number of workers in the shop was dropped and replaced by the previous requirement that they needed only a majority of the votes cast in order to be elected.  Shop committee members would now be allowed a “reasonable” amount of time during working hours to draw up “requests and recommendations, petitions and grievances, and for the hearings thereon, and time so allowed shall be without prejudice to their efficiency marks.”  Frey, considered the matter successfully resolved and so notified MTD unions and councils to that effect. [Letter, Frey, to Col. Howe, White House,  February 1935; Letter, Frey, to Perkins, March 1935. Both in: “Shop Elections”; Frey Papers. “Shop Committees,” Letter, from ASN Roosevelt, to All Navy Yards March 1935; RG181; NA-NY. Letters, Frey, to Affiliated International Unions; to the Navy Yard Metal Trades Council, March 1935; “Shop Elections”; Frey Papers. Frey, “Official Standing of Trades Unions,” 1-3. (For the situation in the Boston Navy Yard, see Black, Charlestown Navy Yard.)]

But as the Bremerton workers soon found out, the right to meet with management did not necessarily mean that anything of merit had to be discussed.  In April 1935 the Bremerton Council notified Frey that they had met with the commandant, who told them that while he and his staff would meet with them they would not recognize them as shop representatives and that they would discuss shop problems only with the shop committees.  As the ASN was already due shortly to visit Puget Sound Navy Yard, Frey arranged for him to meet with the leaders of the Bremerton MTC.  However, the twenty-minute meeting on 6 May did not go at all well.  Roosevelt agreed that the Yard's senior management had to meet with the union committees, but he informed the MTC that their committees could not substitute for nor take the shop committees' place.  Doing so would amounted to agreeing to a closed shop, a type of labor relations which the government would never permit.  Roosevelt also asked what must seemed the obvious question to everyone not familiar with the labor movement: why did the unions object to shop committee elections if they held majorities in the shops?  He also told them he thought the clause in the MTD constitution prohibiting union participation in the shop committees to be “unwarranted.”  The Manager, who had sat in on the meeting defiantly said that “outside” committees could meet with no one but the Commandant and Manager and that union committees could not meet with shop masters. [Letter, Commandant Wallace, PSNY, March 1935; Letters, Schwartz, to Frey, March 1935; 20 April 1935; Letter, Frey, to Schwartz, April 1935; “Shop Elections”; Letter, Schwartz, to  Frey, 17 May 1935; “Shop Elections”; Frey Papers.]

Frey was stymied.  His reputation as a negotiator was on the line and it was embarrassing to have his agreement thrown so quickly back in his face as unenforceable.  But he and the MTD were in a bind.  They were not dealing with a corporation but with the government, and one of its two major military agencies at that.  Frey let the Bremerton MTC know that he could continue to discuss the matter further with the ASN but as he put it, “we intend to cooperate in every way possible with the Navy Department as a matter of sound policy and as our responsible contribution to national defense.”  The MTD would continue to fight any impingement by the Navy of workers' rights, as “the right of civilian employees in the navy yard to organize, is in every way identical with the rights of workmen to organize in private industry.  The right of such organized employees to be represented by committees of their own choosing is one which the trade union movement will insist upon.”  But without true union recognition statements such as Frey's stand more as statements of principle than statements of action. [Letter, Frey, to Schwartz, n.d.; “Shop Elections”; Frey Papers.]

The Shop Committees in the Brooklyn Navy Yard
In the Brooklyn Navy Yard the Navy Department too proved unwilling to enforce its own regulations.  For instance, in the 1936 memorandum to the Yard announcing the upcoming elections the Commandant did not hesitate to outline what he thought the “proper procedure” was as to the operation of the shop committees.  And although the Yard's executive committee could now prepare its meeting agenda on work time he still ordered that the joint committee prioritize its problems on its own time so as not to not bring up “petty matters” in its meetings with management. [Memo, Commandant, to All Concerned, June 1936; RG181; NA-NY.]

At this point we will pause and consider the work of the committees themselves.  Even given all the restrictions, did the shop committee discuss matters of true relevance to Yard workers?  For a few years in the mid-1930s the BNY kept transcripts of its joint shop trade committee meetings, giving us a clear picture of what questions were debated and which were not.  The minutes of the meetings of the smaller committee that actually met with the Commandant or Manager have not been saved (as compared to those transcripts from the early 1920s mentioned earlier).  Following are some examples from the files as to what the committees did discuss.

Inauspiciously, at the December 1935 meeting, at which just 15 of the 35 elected members were present, Thomas Mahoney, patternmaker and chairman, led off explaining that he had missed the last meeting because his shop Master had forbidden him to attend.  He obviously did not suffer alone from such discrimination and said he would talk to the Manager about the problem.  In the fifty-minute session that followed the committee reviewed various matters.  They expressed concerns about the employment situation in the Yard; specifically, some delegates charged the WPA employees working in the Public Works Department with taking away jobs from Yard workers.  Mahoney promised to discuss the matter with the officer in charge.  Delegates expressed annoyance that laid-off non-vested-workers had to expend all their rebated pension money before being put on relief or given WPA jobs.  The delegates requested that some temporary helpers due to be laid off shortly who had eleven months of seniority be kept on until they finished a year's service and thereby collect their vacation pay.  Mahoney replied it was not possible to keep the temporaries on once the Labor Board had compiled a register for a position and that they had to go, although if they stood high enough on the register they would be rehired as permanent employees.  Other matters discussed included recommending a more efficient way to remove injured workers from ships, and requesting that the workers be paid in bills smaller than $20s [equivalent to $258 in 2001 dollars in terms of purchasing power] as stores were reluctant break them unless one made a large purchase.  The conversation also took a xenophobic turn as Mahoney reported on his discussion with the Production Officer as to their earlier recommendation that only English be allowed to be spoken in the Yard.  Commander Richey, the construction officer, had denied the request as being against civil service regulations, but the delegates suggested to Mahoney that the issue be raised again. [Memo, Mahoney, to the Manager via Shop Superintendent, submitting the “Minutes for meeting of 2 December 1935”; RG181; NA-NY.]

Mahoney had little positive to report on at the next meeting.  He let the twenty members in attendance know that the Shop Superintendent was sitting in but that the delegates should not feel intimidated by his presence.  As to the Twenties, the Disbursing office favored using fewer bills as being cheaper and quicker to work with.  Control of WPA projects was beyond their purview, and the civil service rules had to be adhered to as to terminations.  He did have one small but important victory to pass on.  Up to then workers seriously injured on the job had been taken to a hospital on Ellis Island for treatment.  But recent incidents such as a worker who had broken his leg on board a ship under construction and another who had cut an artery had clearly shown the procedure to be too time-consuming. From then on, workers would be taken directly to the Naval Hospital, at the southeastern corner of Wallabout Bay.  (Minor injuries were treated at the Dispensary.)  As to a previous claim that foreigners were working on WPA jobs, which was based on Yard workers hearing some public-assistance workers speak languages other than English, Mahoney informed the delegates that only American citizens could be hired for the WPA. [Minutes for meeting of 6 January 1936; RG181; NA-NY.]

The Shop Superintendent sat in again at the February 1936 meeting, apparently to bypass the need for the executive committee to meet with the commandant.  The delegates complained about treatments they had received at the Dispensary, particularly for frostbite, and the Superintendent, Lieutenant Commander Reddington, said that he had spoken with the Medical Officer, and that severe cases could now be referred to the Naval Hospital.  The aliens-working-for-the-WPA issue was still in the air as Mahoney told the committee that a personnel officer had told him that WPA job applications did not ask for citizenship status.  The committee passed on complaints it had received from some laborers performing scraping work that their respirators were inadequate and allowed dust into their lungs.  Reddington suggested a certain type of mask to use and if that did not help, that they talk to the immediate supervisor.  The Superintendent also reported that new washing facilities would soon be constructed at the foundry and rigger shops. [Minutes for meeting of 3 February 1936; RG181; NA-NY.]

Moving ahead seven months, to the September 1936 meeting, delegates from the Supply Department asked for a traffic light to be installed at the intersection of Clermont and Flushing streets, and the joint committee requested that the Yard set up an inter-shop bowling tournament.  Other delegates worried as to whether workers constructing fuel tanks on new vessels had enough ventilation blowers.  A few representatives said they would talk with the Master involved and report back the following month. [Minutes, for meeting of 14 September 1936; RG181; NA-NY.]

In October, a new chairman reported that Yard management was discussing the traffic light proposal with the appropriate City agency, and that the work on the Coast Guard cutter Hamilton, the source of the ventilation concern, had since been completed but that they had requested that management provide an appropriate number of blowers on future projects.  At this meeting one of the navy yard workers' major on-going grievances was finally aired, the abuse of the classification system.  The committee heard about the problem in the Paint Shop, where the Master was calling back laid-off first-class painters, released for lack of work or funds, at the third-class rate.  Murphy, the chairman, acknowledged that this indeed was being done to cut down labor costs to keep the Brooklyn yard, especially known for its high labor costs, competitive in its bids for work.  He suggested that the painters circulate a petition stating that returning the men to work at the lower rate [a twelve-cent per hour loss] was bad for morale, and that he would pass it on to management. [Notes for meeting on 5 October 1936; RG181; NA-NY.]

Apparently, the executive committee resolved the painters' problems at a special meeting with management as the December transcript shows the painters thanking the present Superintendent for his “cooperation.”  Nonetheless, showing just how much respect some Masters gave to the shop committees, at the April 1937 meeting a worker from the Paint Shop showed up at the joint committee saying that the Master had sent him.  Murphy told tell him to leave and to relay to the Master that the position was an elective one and if the Paint Shop had an opening it should hold a special election to fill it. [Notes for meeting on 7 December 1936; Notes for meeting on 5 April 1937; RG181; NA-NY.]  It should not be too difficult for one to draw conclusions about the overall efficacy of the shop committees as being a meaningful vehicle for the resolution of worker grievances.

On a side note, sometimes the transcripts give us insights into the ordinary day-to-day problems of navy yard workers, such as their commutf to work.  In January 1938, the clerical shop presented a plea to the commandant that he talk with the city's transit department about the need to run additional street cars over the Brooklyn Bridge during the morning and evening rush hours, or perhaps even better, to run a shuttle bus line from the Manhattan end of the bridge to the navy yard's gates.  The Independent subway line had opened a station at York avenue in April 1936, making it the closest subway stop to the Yard, but it was still a bit of a hike to get to the closest entrance, the westernmost gate at Sands Street, and workers from time to time had had to resort to expensive taxis to get to work on time. [Memo, Consolidated offices committee, to  Commandant, January 1938; RG181; NA-NY. The information on the stop now known as the F line is from:]

Union Agitation over the Shop Committees Continues
The AFL and MTD felt they had to tread softly when negotiating with the Navy Department.  While they wanted to appropriately represent their members they did not want to do anything that might them be perceived as disloyal.  When the organizations and the Navy Department clashed publicly over the Walsh-Healey bill in the summer of 1936, John Frey felt the need to explain himself.  In a letter to the to the Shore Establishments Director he set down a general statement of principles.  Organized labor and the Navy Department each had an obvious interest in introducing legislation that advanced their perceived interests and in blocking that which did not.  While he did not think that the two groups should discuss bills before they were introduced, they should do so afterward.  If the Navy opposed any legislation sponsored by the AFL it should take up the matter with the federation first to see if differences could be resolved before publicly challenging the bill.  Public squabbling was harmful in that it gave “comfort and encouragement to those groups within our country who are opposed to adequate national defense, and to those extremists who advocate a 'pacifist purpose.'” [Letter, Frey, to Adm. Lackey, n.d.; “Shop Elections”; Frey Papers.]

Frey also wrote to the Secretary of the Navy to explain organized labor's support for the Walsh-Healy bill.  The MTD's policy was “to cooperate as much as possible with the Navy Department,” yet it and the AFL and their unions had an obvious interest in the conditions under which naval construction was undertaken in private shipyards.  The MTD wanted an adequate defense program and it wanted employment for metal-trade workers.  It had consistently lobbied Congress for naval appropriations over the years and its urging that production be done in navy yards had actually helped in this process as public construction damped “pacifists´” concerns over private shipyards reaping profit from naval building.  The MTD and the Navy had cooperated well in the past until they squabbled over the length of the work week for private shipyards in the NRA shipbuilding-code hearings, labor favoring a 32-hour week for the shipyards in order to stimulate employment while the Navy pushed for a 40-hour week with a minimal wage increase so as to keep ship costs as low as possible.  As to Walsh-Healey, Frey said he had been unaware of Navy opposition to the bill when it was introduced and that the Navy had even gone so far as to ask FDR to veto the bill after it was passed.  The AFL and MTD had conferred with Roosevelt while the bill was still in congress and had been told by the president that he supported it, so the Navy's attitude had “disturbed and perplexed” Frey and his colleagues.  He hoped that future problems could be discussed privately so that the two institutions would never again find themselves on opposing sides in Congress. [Letter, Frey, to Acting Secretary of Navy, August 1936; “Shop Elections”; Frey Papers.]

Frey received polite but noncommital responses.  Admiral Lackey of the SED thanked Frey for the MTD's cooperation over the previous year and assured him that it was his Department's policy to cooperate with the MTD and that labor would always be given a hearing when it wanted one.  However, although conciliation was preferable to public discord, the Department could not give labor the right to a preemptive meeting in every possible case.  As to Walsh-Healey, the Admiral said that the Department favored many of its social aspects such as its language on “hours, sanitation, safety, child and female labor” and the ridding of sweat-shop practices.  The Department's problems with the bill had not been directed against organized labor [even though CIO organizing in the steel industry had begun the year before] but directed against perceived problems with acquiring supplies that, as Standley cleverly put it, could affect navy yard employment.  The Navy reserved its right to comment on any issues affecting national defense, but now that the act had become law the Department would certainly conform to it.  Further, using the CIO's new presence as an excuse for not conferring with Frey over Walsh-Healey, he said that while the Navy favored improved conditions for labor it must stay “neutral” in regards to different groups within organized labor and not support one to the detriment of others.  This point was reiterated shortly thereafter by ASN Edison in supporting the right of the Mare Island navy yard's commandant to deny access to AFL and MTD organizers to the yard even during the lunch break as it could not allow in one labor organization while denying another access. [Letter, Acting SN, to Frey, October 1936; Letter, ASN Edison, to Frey, February 1937; “Shop Elections”; Frey Papers.]

In March 1937 Frey again wrote to the Labor Department about his frustrations with the Navy Department.  He called the Navy's attitude to labor in the Code years “antagonistic,” and he complained about the Department abuse of the efficiency ratings and classification system through the so-called “balanced shop force” concept that required a set percentage of ratings in each trade.  Several commandants still would only deal with the shop committees, which made them “in effect and substance . . . a company union.”  The Navy had attempted to block Walsh-Healey even after FDR had expressed to labor his support for the bill.  And in general since 1933, the Department had issued regulations and rules on navy yard labor relations without first consulting the MTD or AFL.  For instance, two years previously the Department issued orders to prevent solicitations and collections of money in the yards.  The ASN had told the MTD that this edict did not cover the collection of union dues in the yards, a standard practice to date, but was issued to keep outside organizations clear of the yards, but many commandants had nevertheless interpreted the instructions to forbid, and still did, the collection of union dues on government property.  Playing the CIO off against the AFL was especially annoying to Frey, who claimed that the AFL unions formed a bulwark against communist penetration of the navy yards under the guise of the CIO, which had “some fifty or sixty members of the Communist Party” on the payroll and had begun attempts to establish locals in the yards.  Frey was convinced that the president was unaware of the Navy's activities toward labor but he had been unable for the last eighteen months to make an appointment with Roosevelt to discuss Navy labor relations.  Perhaps the Labor Department could convince the Navy to bring its labor policy in line with private sector policy. [Letter, Frey, to McGrady, Asst. Secretary of Labor, March 1937; “Shop Elections”; Frey Papers.]

There was little that the Labor Department could do.  Edward McGrady, the Assistant Secretary of Labor, submitted Frey's letter to the Navy Department for comment and he  sent a copy of its lengthy response back to Frey.  The Navy's primary concern was rapid production and it based its labor policy on accomplishing this.  The Department thought its relations with labor generally to be good and as for the events of FDR's first year or so in office, the letter-writer thought it to be “water over the dam.”  In issues of recognition the Navy had to maintain neutrality.  As the reply made clear, in some ways the emergence of the CIO was a godsend to the Department for its existence now permitted the Navy to move the argument from that of recognizing AFL unions or not to one of refusing to “take sides” in the battles between the Federation and its competitors.  The Department maintained its position on shop committees, but the writer wondered what the problem really was, as the shop committee system as a whole had been practically “inoperative” for some time in most navy yards due to the unions' refusal to let their members participate.  Besides, union committees had continued to pursue their activities in the yards.  The Department did not consult with unions about new labor policies but did consider their ramifications before issuing them.  On the issue of union dues, they could be collected on work time if the collector did so on his own time and did not unduly interfere with production.  While dues collection on premises had most likely been undertaken for years it had never had official approval.  As to Walsh-Healey, the Navy had lobbied against it, believing it would slow down production, as had proven to be the case.  (The “problem” was the reluctance of the steel companies to provide steel to the Navy under the law's conditions.)  Frey's patriotic comments seemed particularly to annoy the letter writer who rejected what he saw as a demand that the Navy “back the A.F. of L. against all comers.”  The Department refused to be anything but neutral in intra-union matters. [Letter, McGrady, to Frey, May 1937; “Shop Elections”; Frey Papers. The author of the Navy's letter is not given.]

This reply was a near-complete rebuttal of the MTD's claims and grievances and shows that without true recognition labor, no matter how well its relations with management appear to be, still must ultimately rely on its largesse except for whatever power it can exercise informally through its political allies.  In the 1930s, Congress showed itself willing to intervene on general (and public) matters concerning naval civilian labor such as hours, wages, and benefits, but it seemed unwilling to intervene in the nitty-gritty of labor- management relations.  Gone were the days of twenty years before when organized labor successfully petitioned Congress to outlaw Taylorism in naval and army industrial plants.  It was still a buyer's market for labor in the 1930s, and Roosevelt's administration remained under great pressure to curtail spending.  While the government and the Navy Department had to respond to the obvious conditions of work, hours, aggregate wages, and benefits, they had a free hand to take back with one hand a portion of what they had bequeathed with the other.

The Philadelphia Navy Yard Election Experiment of 1937
The issue of federal-employee representation was hardly limited to the Navy Department; pressures to be heard filled all the executive agencies' halls.  In January 1937 President Roosevelt released to Congress a report that his Committee on Administrative Management had worked on for most of the previous year.  Commonly known as the Brownlow Committee report, its findings called for a systematic overhaul of the organization and functioning of the executive branch of government in the interests of more efficiently servicing the needs of a larger government within a democratic structure.  While most of the major recommendations, such as creating two new Cabinet posts, would require Congressional legislation, there were many aspects that Roosevelt felt could be initiated immediately through appropriations and by issuing executive orders. [The Presidents's Committee on Administrative Management, Report of the Committee (Washington: G.P.O., 1937).  On the Brownlow Committee, see: Davis, FDR into the Storm (New York: Random House, 1993); Ingraham, The Foundation of Merit (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1995).]

To improve personnel relations in the federal government the report suggested that: federal employees have the right without interference, to organize and choose their own representatives for the purpose of “employee-management cooperation and of joint conference with administrative and supervisory officers and employees, and for other lawful purposes”; discrimination for membership in any lawful organization be prohibited; the majority of employees in any “appropriate” unit have the right to determine the “organization, person, or persons” to represent them; administrators had the duty to recognize and meet with such representatives on issues of “working conditions, hours of service, or compensation schedules”; regulations pertaining to these matters be published and easily secured by employees; and, unless in response to an emergency, or act of Congress, or executive order, new regulations be promulgated only after a thirty-day notice period in order to give the affected a chance to comment.  As before, individuals and other groups retained the right to present their own grievances.  Roosevelt endorsed these provisions publicly but with certain important restrictions. [Reeves and David, “Personnel Administration,” in Report of the Committee.]

Under increasing public criticism, which included not only the AFL but now in addition, the CIO--its shipbuilders' union (IUMSWA) was attempting to organize in many of the navy yards--the Navy Department decided in 1937 to conduct an experiment with the shop committee system at the Philadelphia navy yard, “in view of changed labor conditions.”  Philadelphia was one navy yard where the Navy thought that the shop trade system had succeeded and chose it therefore for this reason, believing that it could “count upon the maximum cooperation on the part of both management and employees in supporting the Navy's desire to improve the relations between management and employees at all Shore Stations,” a decision that perhaps bode failure right from the start, at least from the point of view of organized labor.  In the Philadelphia yard, in anticipation of CIO inroads, one of its employees had organized the PNY Development Association, basing it on the shop committees.  It promoted cooperation between personnel in the yard and organized various fraternal groups such as bowling leagues and a navy yard band.  It began a newsletter to counter union “propaganda” and to warn of communist attempts to penetrate the Yard.  Although its leaders reported to the Manager the association denied it was a company union.  The Navy Department endorsed the Shop Employees Association and thought it might be used as a model in other navy yards.  [Letter, SN, to Commandant, Navy Yard, Philadelphia, July 1937; RG181; NA-NY; Dorwat, with Wolf, The Philadelphia Navy Yard (Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).]

Shop committee elections were cancelled in all other navy yards that year and the previously-elected delegates unilaterally confirmed for a second year. “After the details have been worked out by actual trial,” the Department planned to extend the new system to the navy yards and to other shore establishments employing a “considerable” number of civilians.  A two-step process for the election was announced.  In the first stage, “the civilian employees in each shop or similar unit may designate, by election in the shop, the group or organization which they desire to represent the shop as a whole in dealing with the management.” Then, “such chosen group or organization may thereupon name a Shop Committee of not more than three employees, through which the shop employee or group of employees will deal with the management.”  The ongoing “right of any individual or group of employees to present grievances to the management shall not be abridged in any way by the foregoing.”  If an “unorganized”--read non-unionized--group of employees won, the Commandant could permit that group to elect or select its representatives on navy yard property.  If an “organized” group won in a shop or unit that group was free to select its delegates in any way and place it saw fit to do so. [“Election of Shop Committees,” Commandant's Order, August 1937; Letter, SN, to Commandants, Navy Yards, July 1937; “Revised Shop Committee Policy and Procedure,” Letter, SN, to Commandant, PNY, July 1937; RG181; NA-NY.]

The election was to be held by secret ballot and the winning delegates chosen by a simple majority of those voting.  They would serve for a one-year term.  The operation of the shop committee was also revamped, to approximate the worker-representative system in the private sector.  A “reasonable” time on the job was allowed for delegates to perform their duties at no prejudice to their efficiency ratings, that being determined as no more than five per cent of the working hours in a month.  The new orders set aside the monthly meetings with management.  Now, committee members would take up grievances at the shop level with their Shop Master and an appeals ladder was established: representatives could take an adverse ruling from their Master to officers designated by the Commandant to hear appeals, then to the Manager or Department Head, then to the Commandant, and finally, to the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, which would rule for the Department.  At the last two steps Committee members could be accompanied if they chose by “representatives of the elected group [union staff]” or could even have the latter represent their case alone as long as they spoke only for the committee's shop.  On the other hand, the Department advised that periodic meetings between the shop committees and management should be continued to be held for discussing problems and passing along information and that the Commandant would later decide if they were worth continuing.  And to make matters perfectly clear, the Secretary added that the government and its representatives could not “make or sign agreements with its employees, as the government is bound by law and regulations and no such agreement can be binding on the Government. [“Revised Shop Committee Policy and Procedure,” Letter, SN, to the Commandant, PNY, July 1937; RG181; NA-NY.]

But, not unexpectedly, there was a substantial catch.  The instructions also stated that it was up to the Commandant to determine the election procedures.  On 3 August 1937 the Philadelphia Commandant posted on the Yard's bulletin boards the Secretary's letter as well as his instructions for carrying out the elections, to be held in only two weeks, on 18 August.  In his orders the commandant issued a title for the unorganized group, calling them “Shop Employees” and stated that that name would appear on all ballots.  The Commandant would decide which units would be considered shops for the purpose of voting.  And importantly, he decided who else could appear on ballots.  Any “group or organization” could be placed in nomination only if it submitted a petition signed by ten employees within that shop.  For shops with less than forty voters a list with at least twenty-five percent of the workers would suffice.  The lists had to include the names and addresses of three workers who, if the group won, would certify the names of the delegates to be chosen later.  Potential contestors had until 16 August to submit their petitions.  Any shop failing to return a majority victor would have no representation for the following year.  The Commandant did allow that if an organized group were to win it could use navy yard property to select its delegates although not on company time.  Further, the commandant set the requirement that committee members had to have worked in their shop or unit a minimum of one year in the last two years to qualify.  The original condition to vote as set down by the Department was just having worked in the Yard for the previous two weeks. [“Revised Shop Committee Policy and Procedure,” Letter, SN, to Commandant, PNY, July 1937; “Procedure for Establishment of Shop Committees,” Commandant's Order, [PNY], August 1937; RG181: NA-NY.]

The elections proved far from decisive.  The fledgling IUMSWA local called the signature-gathering requirement a hardship.  Ten names might seem trivial but with forty-two shops conducting elections it meant they had to collect 480 of them in a very short time in order to run everywhere, and in response the local called for a boycott of the elections.  Its newspaper claimed that 1500 workers either cast no ballots or blank ones. The New York Times reported that about 5000 of the 7000 employees took part in the balloting.  Overall, nine of the largest shops failed to return a majority vote, the Association took twenty-six others, and--in some ways paralleling the BNY experience--small AFL unions took the rest.  The IUMSWA claimed, perhaps correctly, that the automatic inclusion of “Shop Employee” on the ballots rigged the elections in favor of the status quo.  The shipworkers' union said the Department saw the experiment as a failure. [Boilermakers Journal, July 1937; The Shipyard Worker [IUMSWA], August 1937, September 1937; NYT, August 1937.]

Apparently, the Navy Department did consider the Philadelphia experiment a failure as it did not implement the new system.  But it was not willing to call it a day and abandon the shop trade committees, nor as a government agency was it able to give the informal union committees the recognition they so desperately wanted.  For the 1938 shop elections, H. Roosevelt released the old instructions but with a revision that allowed for all or any part of a shop to hold an election if a sufficient number of its workers requested one, said determination to be made at management's discretion.  The BNY notice for the 1939 elections stated that a petition containing the names of more than half the workers in the shop affected would fulfill the requirement.  Whether in reaction to the continual attempts to manipulate the system, or due to sheer apathy on the part of most workers under the fifty-percent rule, or to a new sense of union solidarity, only a handful of the Brooklyn shops that elected delegates in 1936 did so in 1938 and that number dwindled to two by 1940.  One group in Brooklyn, the pipecoverers and insulators, did take the Department up on its offer for in 1938 they appear as a shop separate from the Plumbers, although for just two years. [Letter, ASN Roosevelt, to All Navy Yards and Stations, March 1938; “Shop Committee Elections,” Commandant's Instructions, July 1939; RG181; NA-NY.]

There was one coda though.  In March 1941 the BNY transportation shop asked for an election to select a committee of one.  Yard management was eager to accommodate the procedure and even went so far as to authorize a second election with additional voting hours when the first election in January failed to elect a candidate with a majority vote.  It is unclear if even this election returned a member as the leading vote-getter still fell two votes shy of a majority.  Other than that, the call for the elections in the summer of 1941 returned no interest on the part of any of the other shops. [Memo, Supervisor of Elections, to Manager, January 1941; Memo, Foreman, Transportation, March 1940; Memo, Abplanalp, to the Manager, March 1940; “Shop Committee Elections,” Commandant's Order, July 1941; RG181; NA-NY.]

In July 1940, Captain Broshek, the BNY Manager, reviewed the matter with his counterpart at the Philadelphia yard.  Broshek summed up the situation at his yard stating that most workers belonged to unions which did not participate in the elections and as a result, the Brooklyn yard had virtually no shop committee presence.  The union committees remained and they conducted nearly all their work outside working hours.  In a report on industrial relations in the New York Navy Yard conducted by an outside firm in the early months of the war it is mentioned that “unofficially, weekly meetings are held by the shop superintendent with a committee of the AFL, and occasionally with the CIO. . . .  These meetings are not attended by the shop masters or supervisors, however, although matters discussed may be of vital interest in one or more shops.”

While we do not have records for these “unofficial” meetings (and especially for how effective they were) they formed the unofficial foundation for the Navy's labor relations policy during the second world war, when once again as in the previous world war, official, labor-management committees were set up in the navy yards to discuss conditions of work, and Secretary Knox agreed to meet quarterly with labor representatives in Washington.  As he put it, “It must be apparent that the only way to win this war is by the elimination of friction and controversy.”  What was essential to winning the war was “cooperation, not coercion” in labor relations. This was not official union recognition and navy yard workers did not have to pay union fees or dues as did private-yard workers.  But as workers belonging to unions were the best organized, this policy did amount to a de facto recognition for the war’s duration. [Letter, Broshek, to Chantry, PNY, July 1940; reply, July 1940; Industrial Relations Counselors, inc., New York, N.Y., “Report on Industrial Relations in the New York Navy Yard,” April 1941 [sic] (the date is a typo; it is clear from the report that the correct date is 1942); “Labor Relations - Proposed conference in Washington in October 1942,” Letter, from ASN, to Commandants, all Navy Yards, September 1942;  RG181; NA-NY; “Labor Relations and the Navy” Naval Institute Proceedings (May 1943). Comments by Knox in: NYT, August 1942.]

Brooklyn Navy Yard Shop Committee Structure, 1925
Hull Division shops Machinery Division shops
Plate and Angle, 
   pneumatic tool [shipfitters]  -5 
Machinists  -4
Sheetmetal   -3 Boilermakers  -3
Shipsmith   -2 Electricians  -3
Pipe    -3 Coppersmiths  -2
Shipwright & Boat  -3 Foundrymen  -3
Paint    -2 Patternmakers  -2
Laborers, riggers  -3 Power plant  -3
Sail & Flag   -2 Central Tool  -2
Public Works Division
Transportation  -3
Building Trades  -4
Supply and Accounting Divisions -3
Consolidated Office and Drafting Room Division
Clerks    -3
Draftsmen   -3
Testing Laboratory  -3
The shops included these trades:
Shipfitters, x11:  shipfitters, helpers, flange-turners, loftsmen, punchers and shearers, chippers and caulkers, riveters, drillers, holders-on, rivet heaters, electric welders, gas cutters and welders, helpers, and general helpers.
Sheetmetal, x17: sheetmetal workers and helpers.
Shipsmith, x23: heavy forgers, shipsmiths, anglesmiths, drop forgers, helpers.
Pipe, x56:  plumbers, pipefitters, helpers, buffers and polishers.
Shipwright and boat, x61, x68:  shipwrights, millmen, wood caulkers, helpers, joiners, boat builders, helpers.
Paint, x71: painters, helpers.
Laborers and riggers, x72: laborers, riggers, helpers, firemen.
Sail and Flag Loft, x76: sailmakers, helpers, sewers.
Machinists, x31: inside machinists, outside machinists, ordnance machinists, helpers.
Boilermakers, x41:  boilermakers, helpers.
Electricians, x51: electricians, helpers.
Coppersmiths, x53: coppersmiths, helpers.
Foundrymen, x82, 83: brass and iron moulders; coremakers, furnacemen, millers, chippers, helpers.
Patternmakers, x94: patternmakers.
Power Plant, x03: all trades.
Central Tool, x06:  machinists, toolmakers
Transportation, x02: enginemen, chauffeurs, switchmen, conductors, others [not specified]
Building Trades, x79: joiners, painters, plumbers, masons, concrete workers, blacksmiths, sheetmetal, roofers, laborers, wharfbuilders, trackmen.
“Election of Shop Trades Committee,” Letter, Commandant, to Heads of Divisions and Offices, July 1925; RG181; NA-NY.
Shop Trade Committee Representation, New York Navy Yard, 1929-1941
SHOPS 1929 1930 1931 1932 1933 1934 1935 1936 1937 1938a 1939a 1940a 1941a
Boat  x x x x - - x x h





- - - -
Boiler  - - - - x x x - - - - -
Building Trades  - x x - x x x x - - - -
Central Tool  - - - - x x x x - - - -
Clerical x - - - x x xb x - - - -
Copper - x x x x - - x x x x -
Drafting - - - - - c xd xde x - - - -
Electric - x x - - - x - - - - -
Foundry - - - - - - - x - - - -
Machine Inside - - - - - - - - - - - -
Machine Ordnance - - - - - x - - - - - -
Machine Outside - - - - - - - - - - - -
Material Lab x x x x x x x - - - -
Paint x x x x x x x x - - - -
Pattern x x x x x x x x - - - -
Pipe/Plumber x x x - x x x x x x - -
Pipe Insulator - - - - - - - - xi x - -
Power Plant x x x x x - - - - - - -
Rigger/Laborer x x - - - - x x - - - -
Sail/Flag - x x xf x x x xfg - - - -
Sheetmetal x x - x x x x x x - - -
Shipfitter - - - - - - - - - - - -
Shipsmith  x x - - - - - - - - - -
Forge/Blacksmith - - - - x x x x x x x -
Shipwright/Joiner - - x xf x x x x - - - -
   Stores x x x x x x x x x - - -
   Accounting x x x x x x - x - - - -
   Disbursing x x x x x x x x - - - -
Transportation x x x x x x x x - - - xh
Welders - - - - - - xi - - - - -
Woodworking x x - - - - - - - - - -
a - Elections only held for shops asking for them; term of service started 1 September
b - Split into two shops: Commandant's Office; other clerical
c - Split into two shops: Central Drafting; Public Works Drafting
d - Split into three shops: C&R; Engineering; PWD
e - Only PWD elected a representative
f -  Split into two shops for election
g - Only Sail elected a representative
h - Election held in March
i -  First time shop listed

Source: "Announcements, Election Results of Shop Trade Committees"; RG181; NA-NY.

© John R Stobo, November 2003