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110th Anniversary of the Grand Rapids Furniture Workers Strike: Why labor organizing is still urgently needed and what we can do to expand it

April 18, 2021

One hundred and ten years ago this week, some 600-700 furniture workers in Grand Rapids went on strike for better pay, better working conditions and the right to form a union.

There is plenty to learn about the 1911 Grand Rapids Furniture Workers strike and we would recommend that people read Jeffrey Kleiman’s book, Strike: How the Furniture Workers Strike of 1911 Changed Grand Rapids, along with what the Grand Rapids People’s History Project has written about the topic.

It is worth noting that the 1911 strike lasted for several months, was supported by the Catholic Bishop, along with lots of residents, resulting in 10,000 people turning out for the Labor Day Parade just weeks after the strike ended. In fact, the furniture barons were so threatened by 1911 furniture workers strike, that they then ran a campaign to change the Grand Rapids City Charter in 1916, reducing the number of political wards in the city from 12 to 3.

As we reflect on the 1911 Grand Rapids Furniture Workers Strike, it is important to acknowledge that the strikers did not win. Despite not winning their demands, the furniture workers strike demonstrated to people in Grand Rapids that power can be challenged and that change can happen. The 1911 strike also made it clear to workers in the area that having the right to collective bargaining is extremely important and that anything is possible when organizing with your fellow workers.

Now the US labor movement has been on a stead decline since the 1950s, for a variety of reasons, such as the deindustrialization of the US, the lack of international worker solidarity, federal and state policies that have undermined labor unions and the mainstream union allegiance to the Democratic Party.

However, there is a growing interest in labor organizing, particularly amongst younger people, as can be seen in the $15 an hour campaign, the fast food worker campaign, the restaurant worker campaigns, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the public sector teacher union campaigns in several states and the most recent campaign to unionize Amazon workers. 

Forming a labor union, a workplace union, is a powerful strategy to democratize any workplace. It’s important to have collective power in the places that we spend so much of our life, even if we make a livable wage and have good benefits, we should never underestimate the power that the business class has in our places of employment.

The percentage of people who are part of a union has been hovering around 10% of the labor force in the US, which is a far cry from the 40% of workers that were organized in the 40s and 50s. So, what can we do to promote more organizing amongst those who are not part of the business/capitalist class?

First, people should really consider starting a union in their place of work. When we organize where we are, not only can we make our work place more democratic, we demonstrate that direct action doesn’t rely on the existence of laws or policies. We can take collective power into our own hands and not wait for local, state or federal politicians to adopt policies that are labor friendly.

Second, joining a union doesn’t have to be limited to being part of a particular craft. We should adopt the same mindset that has governed the IWW since it was founded, which is to say that anyone could join as long as you were not a boss. That means that everyone else could be part of a union, whether you have a job or not, whether you are employed or not, whether you work in the home and take care of children or not, anyone who is not a boss can be organized.

Third, we need to develop better forms of international solidarity. For too long, business unions have supported capitalist policies abroad, which often undermines worker rights around the world. We have to stop buying into the idea that Vietnamese or Mexican workers are in competition with us. Instead, if we have solidarity with people around the world, then we realize it is the business/capitalist class that is against us. The more cross-border organizing we can do, the more likely we will be able to engage in actions that benefit workers everywhere and not just ourselves. 

Fourth, those of us who are not part of the business/capitalist class are in the majority. Therefore, we can use our collective leverage to make larger social, political and economic demands. We need to stop just voting for the lesser of two evils and start making politicians bend to our will. This could take the form of creating worker-centered political parties, but it could also mean that if we are part of a union that we should demand that instead of making massive campaign contributions to the Democrats or Democratic candidates, we should use that money to support worker-led mutual aid project or pay people to organize workers in our communities. 

In 2012, there were 10,000 people protesting the Right to Work law that the Snyder administration pushed through. I was part of a crowd of 250 people who went into the Lansing State Capitol to occupy the building to force the State government to rescind the Right to Work law. Most of the 10,000 stayed outside and made speeches, but what if all 10,000 had entered the building to demand that the Right to Work law be done away with? Instead, those who stayed outside pushed a strategy to get a Democrat elected as Governor. Why do we put our energy into electoral strategies that do not result in significant improvements in the lives of workers and their families?

In 2012, Labor groups spent $21.9 million to defeat the Right to Work law in Michigan, but lost anyway. Imagine if that $21.9 million had been spent to support mutual aid project for families and to provide funds to pay people to organize labor unions all across the state?

Fifth, building on this idea of workers using their collective wealth to support worker and their families, according to, labor groups spent roughly $220 million dollars in the 2020 Presidential election. This amount, does not include how much labor groups spent at the state level on Congressional, State and local races. Again, imagine how  $220 million could be used to provide mutual aid projects for families and how many people could be paid to organize in their workplace. 

Besides engaging in direct democracy through labor organizing, we also have to ask ourselves how spending $220 million on elections has really benefited workers and their families across the country, particularly in terms of economics? I mean, we can’t even get the Democratic Party to adopt a $15 an hour minimum wage policy, which in all reality is grossly inadequate in terms of what the cost of living is no matter where you reside. 

Sixth, the labor movement needs to make the wealth gap a major part of their analysis and strategy. We are all aware of how the billionaire class has expanded their wealth during the COVID pandemic. This is not some anomaly, rather it is the nature of the capitalist system to continue to direct massive sums of wealth to a small percentage of people, while most of the world’s population struggles to survive. Therefore, the labor movement has to adopt an anti-capitalist platform and stop believing that the system of capitalism can really benefit workers.

Seventh, the labor movement cannot operate in a silo and must see that their struggle is deeply connected to the struggles for Climate Justice and Immigrant Justice. The labor movement has to see that they cannot stand on the sidelines in the fight against White Supremacy or the anti-LGBTQ campaigns – particularly the anti-trans campaigns – that are happening all over the US. The labor movement has to see that the millions of families who are facing eviction, gentrification or homelessness are also people that do most of the actual work in this country. The labor movement must not only take a stand against all of these intersecting injustices, they have to be part of the larger coalitions to dismantle White Supremacy, anti-trans policies, fossil fuel extraction and other Neo-liberal policies that are attempting to privatize everything.

On the 110th anniversary of the Grand Rapids Furniture Workers Strike, let’s take inspiration from the hundreds of workers who took part in that strike, in their belief that when we practice solidarity we can achieve so much more, plus the value in seeing that, as the anti-globalization movement has taught us – Another World is Possible!

Image below was created by Ricardo Levins Morales.

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