The summer of 1943: The Black River winds its way through
Springfield, Vt. on its way to meet the Connecticut River, as it had for
millennia. Workers report daily to the machine tool plants along its banks —
Fellows Gear Shaper, the Parks & Woolson Machine Co., the Jones &
Lamson Co. and the Bryant Chucking Grinder Co. — as they had for
This is "Precision Valley," where some 10 percent of
all the machine tools produced in the United States are made.
The summer of 1943 brings something new. Machine tool workers
take a step towards realizing a dream — the strength that comes with unity.
And for these machine tool workers, that means the unity and strength that
comes through UE.
UE had assigned young and resourceful organizer Hugh Harley
to work with Precision Valley’s machine workers. When orders slowed in 1943
and the companies cut back hours, UE launched organizing drives at these major
machine tool companies.
"Approximately 500 workers in Springfield, Vermont plants
(Jones and Lamson, Bryant Chucking Grinder, Fellows Gear Shaper, Vermont
Foundries) have joined our union," wrote Harley to General
Secretary-Treasurer Julius Emspak on Oct. 16, 1943. "Field
Organizer George Dear and I feel that this is the proper time to
charter a local in Springfield."
The National office agreed with the staff’s assessment,
issuing a charter for amalgamated Local 218, for the organization of
Springfield’s machine tool plants.
Beginning with an election in January 1944, UE won bargaining
rights first at Vermont Foundries, then at the Jones and Lamson machine plant,
and at Bryant Chucking Grinder. (Recognition was lost at Bryant two years
later.) No election took place at Fellows Gear Shaper, but not because of lack
"As you probably know, we have been for some time trying
to organize the Fellows Gear Shaper Company, with some 2,000 employees,"
Emspak was reminded in a Jan. 31, 1945 letter from Local 218 Bus. Agent George
F. Tully Jr. "I sincerely believe that within three months the plant
will be organized." It wasn’t.
Twenty-one months later, another Local 218 business agent, Albert
C. Burton, advised Dir. of Org. James J. Matles that after the
Bryant mess was sorted out, "we are going after Fellows Gear
Shaper." Burton recognized that Harley and Dear and Local 218 had already
worked hard on organizing Fellows, but each campaign stopped without "a
good majority" signed up. "We know this will be hard as we will have
to start from scratch, and take many months, but it is the only other big
machine shop here in Springfield."
It would take not many months, but many years.
In 1959, Harley assisted the workers of the Parks and Woolson
Machine Co. in a successful organizing campaign and made another try at the
"Gear Shaper." The campaign continued into 1961. Once again,
concerted efforts by Local 218 members, UE staff and Fellows workers
themselves failed to achieve a solid majority of union card-signers.
Fellows workers received regular leaflets on major shop issues
throughout 1964, including a letter from Local 218 Bus. Agent James Kane,
urging them to sign a UE card. Finally, the campaign advanced in 1966 — when
the United Steelworkers also launched a drive, culminating in an election
later in that year. UE withdrew from the proceedings.
Staying on the ballot might have interfered with the
possibility of Fellows workers finally getting a union, UE said. However, UE
disagreed with the Steelworkers’ strategy of going through an election
without sufficient strength on the chance of a victory. Further, "UE
believes in building a union to get results, not to win an election. If we
have the organization to get results, the odds are we will win the
The Steelworkers lost. Fellows remained the only major
non-union machine shop in Precision Valley.
Fellows Gear Shaper avoided unionization in a variety of ways
— profit-sharing schemes, Christmas bonuses, complicated but
impressive-sounding pension and insurance plans, "merit" wage
systems, annual wage reviews, production bonuses, mutual benefit associations,
recreational committees and more.
IMPORTANCE OF UNITY
Although UE Local 218 made major strides in improving the
wages and conditions of workers at Jones and Lamson, Parks & Woolson and
Vermont Foundries, the goal of unity in the industry had yet to be met. And
that lack of unity hurt all Precision Valley workers.
Employers routinely consulted each other, exchanged
information on wages and working conditions and bolstered each other’s
resistance to employees’ demands for improvements. Workers at the
UE-organized machine tool plants always faced strong resistance to benefits
not in place at the still unorganized plants. When Local 218 sought a
union-shop clause at Vermont Foundries, the boss pleaded for a delay on the
grounds that the bigger companies in town, which hadn’t agreed to a union
shop, would be upset. (Vermont Foundries was owned by Fellows Gear Shaper.)
Unity became a more pressing issue as conglomerates bought up
the industry. J & L was purchased by the giant Textron Corp., Bryant
became the property of multi-plant Ex-Cell-O Corp., based in Detroit. Cone
Automatic in nearby Windsor was taken over by the Cleveland-based Pneumo-Dynamic
The United Steelworkers failed narrowly to win an election at
Bryant Grinder in 1956. Six years later, Bryant workers voted decisively for
UE representation. But the company was not going to let democracy get in its
way, and tied up the results in the courts.
taking on odd jobs in his spare time, a drygoods store clerk in
Torrington, Conn. named Edwin R. Fellows had his first
introduction to the machine tool industry. The young man painted a sign
for the Hendley Machine Co.
too many years would go by, however, before the industrious young man
would make his name well known in the machine tool industry — and not
because of sign-painting.
this time Fellows became friendly with James Hartness, an
inventor and master toolmaker who boarded with the young clerk’s
widowed mother while working for Union Manufacturing. In early 1889
Hartness moved to Springfield, Vt., and encouraged the enterprising
young Fellows to take advantage of the job opportunities in town.
that advice, Fellows made the trip north. He operated a screw machine
for Jones and Lamson for two weeks before joining Hartness in the
company’s design department.
became obsessed with gear-cutting. Sometime in the early 1890s he
devised a revolutionary new method of manufacturing gears. He launched
his company in 1896; the following year, the Fellows Gear Shaper Co.
built its first working machine.
inventor and his new company did not have an easy start. "The
revolutionary nature of his concept caused many to shy away from his
product; early troubles in product development had multiplied the
difficulty of achieving acceptance," wrote Wayne G. Broehl in his
study of Springfield’s machine tool industry Precision Valley.
in the first two years were followed by small profits in 1900 and the
succeeding years. Improvements in steel quality and the rise of the
automobile industry came as a boost to both Fellows and neighbor Jones
Meanwhile, significant events were unfolding at Fellows Gear
Shaper, the largest of Vermont’s major machine tool companies. Fellows was
still independent, but the active management had passed into the hands of
someone workers looked upon as an "outsider" who had radically
changed the atmosphere in the plant.
In March 1963, John E. Barbier succeeded Edwin R.
Fellows II as general manager; in March 1967, he replaced Edward W.
Miller as president. Fellows was the son of the company’s founder;
"Ted" Miller had started at Fellows in 1898 as a machine apprentice
and worked his way up through the ranks. A Michigan resident, Barbier came to
Fellows from Ford with a stint at J & L in between.
"The new management fouled it up so that you couldn’t
produce," complained old-timer Lloyd Reasoner. Workers who had
formerly been satisfied to depend on the company’s good will began to
rethink their outlook on unionism. "I changed my mind in the last two
years because conditions had changed in the shop," said Ray Jeffrey,
an all-round machinist with 28 years in the plant. "You can’t go to the
company officials. If you have grievances, they’re not settled. They just
put you off. I believe it is time to have a union, especially for the younger
Workers at the Gear Shaper could see their wages and working
conditions fall behind those of their neighbors, friends and family members
doing similar work for other companies. By 1968, average hourly earnings at
Jones & Lamson were $3.68; the average at the Gear Shaper was $2.89.
Fellows workers were upset about a medical plan that cost them plenty but
failed to pay all the bills, and bitter about the disgraceful pension plan. A
worker who had earned $3.20 an hour and retired in February 1968 after 25
years’ service was receiving just $61 a month.
UE issued its first leaflet since the December 1966
Steelworkers’ debacle in August 1967. A series of regular leaflets followed,
with another open letter from Bus. Agent Kane, with card attached, on Aug. 21.
By year’s end, the hard-hitting comments on shop conditions brought public
responses from Fellows President Barbier. Intl. Rep. Hugh Harley could report,
in December, that Field Org. Pete Palmer "has a good committee and
cards coming in again."
The union effort seemed to falter in early 1968, but the
changed conditions in the shop encouraged UE supporters and staff alike that
this could be the year Fellows workers were finally joined with other machine
workers in Local 218. "A fresh, new UE-FGS campaign was initiated at the
July 14 membership meeting," a leaflet reported soon afterward. "The
campaign will begin by resigning the entire plant," wrote Intl. Rep. Don
Tormey, who led the campaign.
The campaign moved on with urgency. At occasional mass
meetings, Fellows workers heard from Intl. Rep. Harley, Genl. Sec.-Treas.
Matles and Dir. of Org. Robert Kirkwood. At plant-gate meetings at
least once a week, they heard management’s lies skewered by Intl. Rep. Tormey.
Radio broadcasts from stations in Springfield and Claremont, N.H. as well as
frequent, fact-filled, hard-hitting leaflets proclaimed the union message.
The UE organizing campaign at Fellows received a boost in May
1968 when Cone Automatic workers voted to join the union and soon after
ratified an agreement giving them a union shop, a 37-cent increase in starting
rates, a 24-cent hour increase in the minimum job rate, automatic wage
progressions to the top rate, doubling of pensions and substantial gains in
other areas, including insurance.
Bryant workers, meanwhile, had taken a strike vote. In a
leaflet to the Gear Shaper workers, the Local 218 committee said Bryant was
trying to hold on to the low-wage pattern the Machine Tool Builders’
Association imposes on Bryant and Fellows workers. By voting yes, the Bryant
workers said, Fellows workers will "be on the path to wages and benefits
equal to the skills we give these companies. And that’s how you can help us
at Bryant’s. By helping yourselves!"
On the eve of the Labor Board election, the more than 110
members of the UE-Fellows organizing committee signed a confident statement:
"We are proud of our jobs. We are proud of Fellows Gear Shaper. We are
proud of the machines and tools our skills produce. We are not proud of
our wages, our insurance or our retirement benefits. But we intend to be."
Labor Relations Board officials count the ballots following the Oct. 24,
1968 representation election that brought Fellows Gear Shaper in UE
Local 218 after more than two decades of effort. Fellows workers,
representing their union, keep a watchful eye on the proceedings.
The long goal of unity in the industry became a reality when
Fellows workers gave UE an unmistakable 472 to 355 majority in the Oct. 24,
The first Sunday evening after the election almost 500 Gear
Shaper workers piled into the Springfield Armory to elect their first union
officers, their first negotiating committee and to adopt proposals for their
first UE collective bargaining agreement.
They were greeted by important (and not so) new friends: Local
218 Bus. Agent Jim Kane (later a National UE president), who had helped bring
about their victory; Francis Columbia, president of Local 258 at Cone
Automatic Machine; Emmett Gavin, shop chairman at Bryant Grinder; and Robert
Farnsworth, a J & L worker and president of their new local union,
amalgamated Local 218.
Ten days after the Fellows Gear Shaper workers voted for the
union, the workers at Bryant Grinder went on strike. After a six-year court
fight to win the right to their union, they felt they had no choice but to
strike for a first contract. They stayed on strike for 21 weeks during one of
the worst Vermont winters anyone could remember.
And for the entire 21 weeks the Fellows Gear Shaper management
resisted negotiating a decent contract, waiting to see if the Bryant
management could smash the strike and the union.
Bryant workers won their strike — with the invaluable
support of union members at Jones & Lamson, Cone Automatic and Fellows —
paving the way for a settlement for Local 218 at the Gear Shaper.
On April 21, 1969, Fellows, the largest of the Vermont machine
tool plants, finally signed a contract with UE Local 218. The first contract
provided for 10-cent general wage increase retroactive to December 1968, 5
cents in on May 4 and two more 5 percent increases during the life of the
The charter issued back in 1943 had been fulfilled. Critical
to the victory were the union struggles at Jones & Lamson and Vermont
Foundries, and the basic change in the industry from local, paternalistic
owners to absentee conglomerate control.
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