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A brief overview of the US Labor Movement: Part II – Grand Rapids

September 2, 2019

In Part I, we discussed the history of the labor movement throughout the US, how it went from a more radical movement that primarily relied on direct action then shifted to backing the Democratic Party as a means of achieving their goals. Today, we want to provide an overview of the labor movement in the greater Grand Rapids area. 

Despite the overly religious aspects of Grand Rapids history and the politically conservative stereotype, there has always been a dissident and insurgent element in Grand Rapids.

An effort to organize for an 8 hour work day in Grand Rapids was actually adopted for city workers in 1867, but it was repealed the very next year. (The Story of Grand Rapids: A Narrative of Grand Rapids, Michigan, by Z.Z. Lydens)

Labor organizers were fighting to win a shortened work day as early as 1881. One can barely make out this clip from the Grand Rapids Daily Eagle, which shows that workers were attempting to fight for a 10 hour work day. 

These efforts were eventually fought in a highly organized manner from the capitalist class, with the creation of the Grand Rapids Furniture Manufacturers Association, the first of its kind, in 1881. This battle continued for decades and its resistance was most visible in the 1911 furniture workers strike, which, amongst other demands, was fighting for an 8 hour work day.

However, even prior to the famous 1911 Furniture Workers Strike, there were other strikes in Grand Rapids. There was the threat of a strike in 1886, the same year that Grand Rapids had an 8 hour work day/May Day parade in the downtown area. There was also a major strike in 1891, involving both cable and horse car workers. 

The 1911 Furniture Workers Strike

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.

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.

More often than not, Grand Rapids labor history ends with the 1911 Furniture Workers Strike. Fortunately, a great deal of organizing took place over the past century. For example, in 1936-37, there was the wildcat strikes in Flint, Michigan, organized by auto workers who wanted to unionize. The radical direct action efforts of the workers in Flint scared the business community enough to be willing to negotiate with angry workers in Grand Rapids, for fear that a wildcat strike might break out here. When people engage in radical direct action it pushes everything to shift. Workers in Grand Rapids were able to seize the moment created by the wildcat strike in Flint and mobilize workers here to push for greater demands and to unionize several thousand workers over the next several decades. 

Each of these examples of labor organizing in Grand Rapids continued to build upon the growing push for workers to join unions. After the UAW and the CIO began organizing in Grand Rapids, union membership grew significantly. However, union leadership at the national level cut a deal with business leaders and the Roosevelt administration and agreed to not strike while the US was involved in World War II.

Despite the no-strike pledge, union membership in the US grew from 7.2 million in 1940 to 14.5 million at the end of WWII. However, the strikes began almost the moment that the bombs stopped dropping on Japan. In September 1945, 43,000 petroleum workers and 200,000 coal workers struck. In October 44,000 lumber workers, 70,000 teamsters, and 40,000 machinists joined them.

Then in November 1945, the UAW called its first major strike against GM since the company was unionized in 1937. Nearly a quarter of a million men walked out. In Grand Rapids, this same dynamic began where workers who had years of frustrations during the no-strike pledge of WWII began to challenge the capitalist class by engaging in walk outs and strikes.

In 1946, workers at the UAW Local 730 at the GM plant in Wyoming, Michigan were part of the national UAW strike that lasted for 113 days. (see photos above and below, sourced from The Story of the UAW Region 1-D) The UAW striking workers were fighting for better wages, pensions and improved working conditions, all of which were denied them during the no-strike pledge during WWII.

As we mentioned in yesterday’s article, there was a purge of communists in the US labor movement at the beginning of the Cold War and McCarthyism. This was also the case in Grand Rapids, which you can read about at this link

We are still unclear if there was any serious attempt to organize migrant workers in West Michigan, like what the United Farm Workers were able to achieve in the 1960s and 70s, but there was a Migrant Worker Solidarity groups in the area at least since the late 1970s

There is no better a symbol of anti-unionism in West Michigan, than the ultra conservative company founded by Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel, known as Amway. However, there was a serious effort to organize Amway workers in 1980, which almost succeeded, according to a series of articles written by Michael Johnston, which you can read about here.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, there were also efforts to organize against sweatshops, which was part of the larger anti-globalization movement. 

The anti-globalization movement really took off after the 1999 WTO Protest in Seattle and there was even substantial organizing taking place in Grand Rapids.  This type of anti-globalization organizing continued with resistance to NAFTA and CAFTA in Grand Rapids in 2004

In the last decade, there have also been more radical labor organizing that has taken place in Grand Rapids, with the IWW being revived and gaining national recognition for their actions against Starbucks or the anti-austerity actions that have been organized to confront the policies of Gov. Snyder in 2011 and beyond. 

Like the mainstream labor unions we mentioned in yesterday’s article, have continued to avoid direct action and place their hopes in the Democratic Party, there are examples of groups that are fighting for economic justice and using time honored labor tactics, like boycotts and strikes, such as the group Movimiento Cosecha GR

Like at the national level, these new movements, often led by communities of color, are reviving labor struggles, even if their main focus is on issues like racial or immigrant justice. It is in these new movements that workers can regain their sense of power and give hope to a new generation.

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