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When the Labor Movement was more radical in Grand Rapids

September 6, 2020

Grand Rapids is not unlike most of the US in many aspects of our history. The same can definitely be said about the labor movement.

Like much of the rest of the country, when the labor movement was more independent and autonomous from political parties, they tended to be more radical, meaning they fought for working people and their families.

The 8 hour work day struggle is generally connect to the 1886 Haymarket Uprising in Chicago, and rightly so (more on this later). However, the fight for 8 hours came decades before 1886, even 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An effort to organize for an 8 hour work day in Grand Rapids was actually adopted for city workers in 1867, but it was repealed the very next year.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. According to a story in the Grand Rapids Daily Eagle in 1881, 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.

However, the struggle for the 8 hour work day continued, despite the efforts of the furniture barons and Dutch immigrants embracing a protestant work ethic.

In 1886, there was threat of a major strike in Grand Rapids, according to the New York Times:

The threatened strike at Grand Rapids is finally averted, and to-day is given up to a holiday there. The employers accept eight hours as a day’s work with a corresponding reduction in wages on all workmen above $1 per day. On this basis an advance of 5 per cent is made, with the promise of as much more in two months. No question is raised over the employers’ announcement that they will run their factories in their own way, employing and discharging whom they please. These matters are expected to adjust themselves.

In addition to the threat of a strike by workers in 1886, Grand Rapids hosted an 8 hour a day/May Day parade in the downtown, only four years after the first May Day parade was held in New York City.

Local labor historian MichaelJohnston’s thesis, Non-Union Grand Rapids: 150 Years of the Big Lie, sheds some light on the organizing for an 8 hour work day that preceded the May 1886 parade.

The Furniture WorkersProtective Association, under the skillful leadership of Charles Johnston, began agitating for an eight hour day at nine hours pay in March and succeeded in reducing the workday to eight hours a day for several weeks before and then after May 1, 1886. This May Day affair would be the largest labor action in the city prior to the great 1911 furniture strike and one of national significance.”

Johnston notes that all throughout March and leading up to June of 1886, there were efforts to organize walkouts at several Grand Rapids factories, to picket and even use the threat of violence in numerous instances. However, some union presidents advocated against such practices and Johnston cities this as maybe the first instance of where the term “Company Union” was given to the more mainstream unions in Grand Rapids.

However, not all unions adopted such complacent policies and there were plenty of recent immigrants to Grand Rapids who were much more open to socialist and anarchist approaches to organizing in the later part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century. This was in part due to the city’s proximity to Chicago, which was in many ways the center of radical labor organizing.

Chicago not only was the place of the famous Haymarket Uprising, it was home to numerous militant socialist and anarchist groups that had been organizing amongst workers throughout the city and traveled throughout the Midwest, to places like Grand Rapids. Several of the people who were charged with “inciting violence” at the Haymarket Uprising, like August Spies and Albert Parsons, wrote and spoke frequently throughout the Midwest. August Spies even came to Grand Rapids on more than one occasion to share his views on radical organizing and anarchist politics. For a more detailed discussion of the Chicago/Grand Rapids connection we highly recommend the well researched zine entitled, Mob Work: Anarchists in Grand Rapids Vol. 1, published by Sprout Distro. 

Both cable and horse car workers went on strike May 10, 1891, for higher wages and union contracts. The company began hiring scab workers immediately. As the week progressed, workers tried to keep cars from running, first by inducing others not to take their jobs, but later also by blocking the cars. As the strike continued, there were other actions taken by striking workers, including marches and attempts to shut down roads, like what happened on South Division one night, where workers placed a large iron bar across the tracks to prevent it from moving. 

Probably the most famous labor strike in Grand Rapids history is the 1911 furniture workers strike. Over 6,000 workers went on strike in April of 1911 against poor wages, long hours and exploitative working conditions. The furniture barons responded by bringing in scab workers from out of town and to engage in a strategy of attrition, by wearing down the workers and holding out against their demands.

The strike lasted for several months and the workers did not win what they set out to accomplish with the strike, but the historic strike had a significant impact on relations between the working class and the capitalist class for decades to come. For more on the 1911 furniture workers strike see Part I and Part II from the Grand Rapids People’s History Project.

When social movements engage in direct action, it usually has a larger impact, often providing people with inspiration and examples of how they do not have to follow official channels to get what they want. The 1930s saw a revival of radical labor organizing in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Labor Unions became more militant again and used the power of strikes, along with what was known as a wildcat strike, where workers would occupy their place of employment so as to prevent companies from using scab labor. One of the most famous examples of a wildcat strike took place in Flint in 1936-37.

The labor radicalism seen in Flint had a direct impact in Grand Rapids. In the Spring of 1937 the UAW called for strikes at the Robert Irwin Co., the Macey Co., and Irwin Seating, which involved roughly 1,000 workers over a five week period. In September of that same year more strikes would break out at the Furniture Shops of America, John Widdicomb, Grand Rapids Chair and other furniture factories. In each of these instances the union got a closed shop contract, a check-off procedure and wages increases.

After a failed attempt to organize a union at the Kelvinator plant, the UAW tried again in 1937 and won their first contract, which included the recognition of the union and wage increases. Known as Local 206, this UAW organizing effort became a model for many of the other labor organizing efforts across the city.

In some cases workers defied an anti-picketing injunction that the local courts imposed and many workers went to jail for brief periods in order to win labor contracts and build worker power from the ground up. In the photo included here, you see striking workers being booked at the Kent County Jail in June of 1937.

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.

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.

The business community began applying more pressure on the federal government in order to deal with the “pesky union.” There were two major factors that hurt organized labor after WWII, the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which made it illegal for workers to strike and the McCarthy anti-communist purges, which purged most of the radical elements of the labor movement.

Since then, the US labor movement has declined, with less than 10% of the labor force as part of a union throughout the US. The same thing has been true in Grand Rapids, where union membership has decline for decades, while union contributions to the Democratic Party have increased.

There are examples of labor organizing in more recent decades that reflect a more radical element of the labor movement, but overall the labor movement has become an empty shell of its former self, despite the fact that workplace organizing is still one of the most effective ways to bring about significant change and to demonstrate people power.

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