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Celebrating the Grand Rapids Furniture Workers Strike of 1911: Lessons for contemporary organizing and resistance

April 5, 2017

On April 19, it will be 106 years since hundreds of furniture workers walked off the job in Grand Rapids protesting working conditions, wages and the lack of an 8 hour work day. 

We have been researching this historic event over the years and want to offer the following information for those who want to familiarize themselves with this history, learn from it and think about the significance of working class tactics for todays organizing efforts.

First we highly recommend Jeffrey Kleiman’s book, Strike: How the Furniture Workers Strike of 1911 Changed Grand Rapids.

In addition, on the Grand Rapids People’s History site, we have written or republished numerous articles based on our own research over the years as it relates to the 1911 Grand Rapids Furniture workers strike.

First is a two-part article written by Michael Johnston, who is know by many as the unofficial labor historian of Grand Rapids. In Part I of his two-part series, Johnston provides important historical context, a context that led to the massive worker walkout on April 19 of 1911.

In Part II, Johnston writes about the role that the IWW (industrial Workers of the World) played in the 1911 strike and how the local power structure and even many of the other unions saw them as a threat.

We also include in this primer on the 1911 furniture workers strike, some articles about other factors that played into the outcome of the strike. First, we look at the role of religion and how Christian Reformed Church members were told not to participate in the strike, while the Catholic Bishop at the time was in full support of the striking workers.

Then there are those who documented the strike at the time. We wrote a piece that contrasted the observations of Viva Flaherty, a socialist, who provides a great reflection on what happened during the 1911 strike, and how one of the Furniture barons (R. W. Irwin) documented what took place.

In another article we have written, we note that there were 10,000 workers marching in the Labor Day parade in 1911. Not only was this an impressive number of workers, but it was essentially about 10% of the entire population of Grand Rapids in 1911. Imagine if 10% of working class people took part in a contemporary Labor Day parade or action.

In yet another piece, we contrast the living conditions of those in the capitalist class – the Furniture Factory owners – and those who actually created the wealth for these men – the furniture workers.

Lastly, we include an article about the backlash from the 1911 furniture workers strike. The capitalist class was not happy about the 1911 strike, even though they ended up winning. However, those in power are never content with just winning certain battles, they want to prevent future attempts to challenge their power. What the Robber Baron class did was to change the City Charter, which resulted in decreasing the number of city wards to just 3 and eliminating a strong mayor position. The result of this charter change would make it harder for working class people to have real representation on the city commission and to make the mayor a glorified commissioner.

Again, it is important that we come to terms with understanding this local history, reflecting on it and thinking about what it means for current struggles against the power structure in Grand Rapids.

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