A Look Back to the IAM’s 1968 Chicago Convention

The recently redesigned IAM flag was seen by millions during the 1968 riots in this Associated Press photograph taken from the rooftop of the union’s headquarters in Washington, DC.
The recently redesigned IAM flag was seen by millions during the 1968 riots in this Associated Press photograph taken from the rooftop of the union’s headquarters in Washington, DC.

The 39th IAM Grand Lodge Convention brings the union back to the site of its 27th convention in 1968. The Hilton Chicago was then named the Conrad Hilton, but it was just as much at the center of the action for Chicago and the IAM.

Occurring just weeks after the turbulent Democratic National Convention, the IAM’s convention was both a gathering to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the union and to set the course for the future. Similar to today, the IAM was under new leadership, with a new international president, a new general secretary-treasurer and four new general vice presidents. The convention welcomed 2,036 delegates to the hotel and meeting center.

The convention marked the first time the IAM surpassed 1 million members and East Hartford, CT Local 1746 member Tim Braunstein was hailed as “Mr. One Millionth Member” that year.

Since the previous convention in 1964, membership had grown by nearly 200,000. Capitalizing on the dance craze of the time, the IAM was dubbed the “Go-Go Union” by many of its members because of its organizing successes.

The proceedings and actions by the delegates were influenced by the events earlier that year. In April 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, TN, triggering riots and unrest all over the country.

An Associated Press photograph was taken from the rooftop of the IAM headquarters building in Washington, DC, showing the fires in the city. The photograph unexpectedly exposed millions of Americans to the recently redesigned IAM flag that was prominently displayed.

Public visibility of the IAM and its steady growth was not taken for granted by the delegates or its leadership. It was noted by then International President Roy Siemiller that the IAM was one of the country’s three or four largest unions that no one has heard of. He also introduced a plan for the future and many of his comments ring true nearly 50 years later.

“When they put a 10 percent surtax on incomes, they were hitting the working man right in his grocery money. But some of the big rich won’t feel it at all because, unlike you and me, they don’t pay taxes,” said Siemiller. “Another development which has concerned Machinists conventions in the past and which will even more directly affect the welfare of Machinists members in the future, is the quickening pace of technological development.”

The importance of explaining union values to younger workers was also recognized.

“We realize we are dealing with a generation that has no knowledge of why unions are necessary, what we have contributed to their welfare in the workplace or how we serve their needs today,” said Siemiller. “As a part of our effort to offset the apathy or even outright hostility of many youngsters coming into the workforce, we have developed kits and materials that are especially designed for and aimed at new members.”

As the 39th IAM Grand Lodge Convention commences, big money, technology and organizing young workers continue to take center stage.