GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The tension had been building for years, but in 1911, most of Grand Rapids’ furniture workers had had enough and walked off the job. After four months of uncertainty and a back-and-forth war of words, the strikers eventually cracked and returned to work, giving the city a legacy as an anti-union town.
But the industrialists didn’t win; rather, they more or less delayed their loss. In the end, the industry that fueled Furniture City had too many flaws and when the Great Depression rolled around in 1929, few businesses were able to withstand the drought.
The furniture industry helped Grand Rapids blossom from a small village to a bustling mid-sized city. Company leaders were able to capitalize off West Michigan’s white pine forests, the power and easy transportation provided by the Grand River and the cheap labor of the tens of thousands of European immigrants who settled there. But over time, the immigrant class that came to Grand Rapids looking for work had realized that companies had brought in fortunes but doled out little of the spoils. By 1909, many workers had voiced their frustrations over their long hours — 10-hour shifts Monday through Saturday — and their piece-rate pay system.
When workers at the Oriel Cabinet Co. asked for a cost-of-living raise in 1909, they were rejected and criticized as “agitators.” By 1910, workers from plants across the city were coming together informally to consider a work stoppage. Those frustrations built up to the strike of 1911.
PREPARING TO STRIKE
Working conditions at Grand Rapids’ furniture factories were not ideal. Safety issues aside, workers weren’t happy with 60-hour weeks and earning roughly $2 per day.
It didn’t help that the factory owners worked closely together within the Furniture Manufacturers Association to keep its influence local and to keep costs down. The FMA created a card system, keeping tabs on every factory employee, including their immigration status, their pay rate and any notes that could be used as leverage. It mostly prevented employees from hopping from factory to factory in search of better pay and allowed the companies to “blacklist” certain workers.
Working conditions aside, pay rates at Grand Rapids furniture factories paled in comparison to those in other cities. Leading industrialists didn’t even deny the fact that West Michigan workers earned far less than other furniture manufacturers in other markets.
Labor historian Jeffrey Kleiman, who wrote “Strike: How the Furniture Workers Strike of 1911 Changed Grand Rapids,” cited a quote in a 1911 newspaper from Lyman Lathrop of the National Association of Furniture Manufacturers, saying: “(Grand Rapids industrialists got a) higher grade of labor at a price rather below that paid in other furniture centers. … In no place in the country do they work their men ten hours a day, except possibly in some of the southern centers, and I am told that the South is the only part of the country where wages are as low as they are in Grand Rapids.”
The hesitancy to organize baffled some outsiders. It even inspired William Haywood, a co-founder of the Industrial Workers of the World union, to write an op-ed titled, “What’s the Matter with Grand Rapids?”
Following the Oriel incident, workers from several plants started to organize to call for an end to the piece-rate pay system. Instead of being paid hourly, workers were paid based on how many pieces they completed that day, regardless of whether the parts they needed were ready or the wood they had to use was good enough quality. Simply put, there were several factors putting workers at a disadvantage and they believed the piece-rate pay system was unfair.
In October 1910, more than 4,000 furniture workers had gotten together to discuss a possible work stoppage if the piece-rate pay system wasn’t changed. Once they caught wind of a potential strike, factory owners tried to quell the talks by “promising” they would change the pay system at the start of the new year.
When the calendar flipped to 1911, there were no changes and the talks about a work stoppage took another step forward. This time, workers weren’t only focused on the piece-rate system. It became clear that they needed some form of representation to get any concessions from factory owners and the FMA. Now, they wanted a union.
By March, the discussions of a strike grew, even making headlines in local newspapers. With the FMA refusing to hold any discussions on a collective bargaining agreement, many workers felt they had no choice but to strike.
On March 25, they took action. More than 3,000 workers filled a hall on the city’s West Side to vote on a strike. According to Kleiman, the vote came back with 95% support.
The strike was set to start April 1, giving peacekeepers like Mayor George Ellis and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Schrembs one week to try to organize a truce and avoid a work stoppage. Pastors used their Sunday pulpits to call for peace and local newspapers ran editorials calling for a deal to be reached without a strike.
It worked. The furniture workers stayed on the job and the FMA launched a committee to research whether the workers’ complaints held any merit, including community leaders on the panel as a gesture of impartiality. That included Schrembs and Fountain Street Church’s Rev. Alfred Wishart.
The committee, however, was short-lived. After two weeks of depositions and other pomp and circumstance, the FMA issued a statement on April 18 that the organization would stand firm and would not recognize any union.
On April 19, the strike started in earnest.
In total, roughly 7,000 furniture workers had gone on strike, but the fight was far more complicated than factories simply accepting a union. Owners were dealing with at least three unions, including carpenters, painters and wood carvers.
That affected how the strike moved forward. According to Kleiman, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners stepped up the most, offering to cover 75% of a striker’s weekly salary to help them get by. But not all strikers had the same backing and according to labor historian Michael Johnston, some had nothing but family and community support.
“Even from the beginning, that 7,000 is deceiving. Only 4,000 to 4,200 were getting $5 a week (from supporting unions),” Johnston told News 8.
The strikers also had a key asset in their corner: William McFarlane, a national organizer for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners. He served as a unified mouthpiece for the strikers, appealing to the media and crafting a narrative to win public support.
By the end of April, the strike was in full swing. A handful of small furniture factories that didn’t have the resources of other companies had negotiated deals with its workers, primarily giving into wage and hour demands. With those demands met, many workers were happy to concede union representation.
As the weather started to warm, some members of the city government and community leaders worried about strikers with an axe to grind spending their days bellied up to a bar. Mayor Ellis shifted his focus to maintaining peace, calling on bar owners to carefully police their own crowds to make sure strikers didn’t get out of hand and that the bar crowds didn’t push pickets past an orderly state. And when crowds did get rowdy, Ellis was on hand to be a calming influence.
From historian Kleiman’s “Strike”: “On April 24, more than 200 men, women and children gathered outside the Michigan Chair Company hoping to intimidate anyone who might want to break ranks with the strikers and return to work. Company manager Thomas Garratt drove up to the factory gates, waved his fist and shouted at the crowd that he was going to keep an open shop and that nobody could dictate labor policy to him. Ellis appeared a few minutes later, addressed the crowd and made a show of talking with Garratt in a friendly, relaxed manner. The mayor then asked everyone to disperse. More than half the people went home while the rest remained to speak with the mayor and shake his hand.”
The furniture barons, who had anticipated unrest seen in other cities during strikes, were upset with Ellis, who alongside then-Kent County Sheriff William Hurley denied the companies the right to deputize a private security force. Instead, Ellis came up with the idea for “peace patrols.” He allowed the city to put together a specific police force for patrolling around the furniture factories. Approximately 100 men — almost all strikers — were deputized and given nightsticks instead of guns. By hiring the strikers for a small stipend, Ellis was able to help more men get by while out of work, maintain pressure on factory owners and keep protests calm.
The peace patrols were praised by people across the country as a smart decision. An editorial published in the national journal “Outlook” — founded by former President Teddy Roosevelt — defended the concept of labor unions and the push for more worker representation because it could be done peacefully, as evidenced in Grand Rapids.
The editorial said, “Such working men show themselves not only good citizens whose patriotism takes a practical form, but also the wisest kind of advocates for advancing the cause of the wage earner.”
The 1911 strike wasn’t always peaceful. Though it was calm compared to most work stoppages, the Grand Rapids strike had its moments, most notably the West Side Riot.
Over a weekend in mid-May, a statement from the FMA threw strikers for a loop when the Association said the strike was over and workers would return to their stations the following Monday. After quickly deciphering the lie, many strikers gathered to voice their frustration with the underhanded tactic.
According to a report from The Evening Press — now the Grand Rapids Press — picketers outside of the John Widdicomb Co. factory became enraged that evening after a clash with Harry Widdicomb. Harry, who took over the company the year prior after the death of his father, quickly became a target for ire in the strike. From the start of the work stoppage, he used his car to defy the picketers and ferry strikebreakers to and from the factory. In the days before the West Side Riot, Widdicomb reportedly waived a pistol in the air as a message to the strikers.
On May 15, two days after the manipulative FMA statement, Widdicomb once again made his way through the crowd with his car. But this time, as he went to leave, he was harassed by the crowds and trapped behind the factory gate.
Things escalated from there. Women and children formed a wall around the car, while men threw rocks and bricks. According to the Press report, several people reported hearing gunshots, but no one was confirmed hurt. The outmanned police and fire crews used hoses to try to disperse the crowds to no avail. Soon, Ellis was at the front of the line working to quell the masses.
A press report quoted in “Strike” said, “the crowd came forward like an orderly audience” and one man shouted, ‘We’ll believe Ellis anytime, but we won’t let these ‘coppers’ come around here bossing us.'” Ellis was able to cool the hot crowds long enough for Widdicomb and five strikebreakers to sneak away from the factory with armed officers riding on the hood of his car.
Widdicomb had left but the fire wasn’t out. Within a couple of hours, the embers lit once again, with strikers taking their frustrations out on the factory building. Now under the shroud of darkness, rioters lined the building on all sides, breaking windows with whatever they could find. The lone officer on scene stood by passively, not only because he was desperately outnumbered but because no people were being hurt and only property was being damaged.
After a while and with every factory window shattered, a squad of police officers arrived on scene and calamity ensued. The officers struggled to maintain control of the crowd, firing warning shots into the air until they were out of ammunition. Ellis returned to the scene but wasn’t able to do much to quell the crowds. By the end of the night, only four people had been arrested but dozens were bloodied and any optimism that the strikers could reach a compromise with the FMA was lost.
The fake announcement from Francis Campau and the FMA wasn’t the only shady tactic used by the organization to try and quell the strike.
While the companies lost most of their staff, some employees defied the strike and kept working. And the FMA looked beyond West Michigan to bring in more strikebreakers to keep the businesses afloat and outlast the strikers in a test of endurance.
In “Strike,” Kleiman noted that the Grand Rapids Show Case Co. converted the sixth floor of its factory on the southeast side of the city into a dormitory, housing approximately 150 woodworkers and along with in-house cooks and a waitstaff.
Other companies followed suit with mixed success. As the work stoppage wore on, more strikebreakers were brought in to try and fill the gaps, hired under the guise that there were staff shortages.
In one notable incident, a group of strikebreakers were brought in from Philadelphia and Chicago. A team of strikers greeted them at the train station and set off a riot. Once the strikebreakers realized they were brought in to cross picket lines, most returned home.
Grand Rapids’ strikers also won the support of their brothers in Holland. In June, one furniture factory there was given orders for a new model, one that they recognized as a Grand Rapids product. Instead of building the pieces, the staff refused, choosing solidarity with their fellow woodworkers.
By summer, the tactics were enough to firmly pit most of the community and the press on the side of the strikers. Following the false announcement and the train station scuffle, an editorial from The Evening Press accused the FMA of prolonging the strike with “stubborn intransigence.”
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
As the work stoppage stretched into July, the strikers carried a lot of community support but time was running out and the industrialists were ultimately able to win the battle of attrition.
A couple of key factors broke against the strikers and ultimately ended the strike. For one, most Grand Rapids companies were able to stay afloat because they did well at the annual buyers’ show where they displayed their latest and greatest models for stores across the country.
At the time, the economy was slowed, which meant the factories had more inventory on hand than expected. That allowed them to continue filling orders even without much work being done. The buyers also seemed content to work with the furniture manufacturers, agreeing to delays on specific items and buying older models instead of new ones.
By the end of July, while the strikers still carried most of the public support, they didn’t have the means to make it much further. By August, many strikers had no choice but to give in and return to work. Aid from supporting union groups and community fundraisers had dried up and enough factories had made enough minor concessions to draw their workers back, albeit with no recognized unions.
The hammer unofficially dropped Aug. 9. The local chapter of the Christian Reformed Church, which was home to many of the Dutch woodworkers, issued a classis stating that its church members should not be affiliated with any labor union.
Said Kleiman in “Strike:” “It was the union’s preoccupation with material — rather than spiritual — concerns that most offended the church. The union’s principals stood anchored ‘merely’ in ‘principals of humanity and earthly welfare without recognizing God in any respect.’ The union south only ‘human good’ and no more.’”
While it wasn’t what ultimately killed the strike, it served as a key blow. The classis included 17 area churches, an estimated 8,000 congregants and plenty of strikers.
By Aug. 18, there were approximately 2,000 workers holding out. Roughly 75% of the strikers voted to end the strike and return to work under the same working conditions.
McFarlane, the national organizer for the carpenters’ union, who left Grand Rapids in early August 1911 to support a major labor movement in Great Britain, offered up these parting words: “When you ask next time to sit down for a conference, they will listen to you.”
*Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series looking at the 1911 strike. The series will continue on woodtv.com in the coming days and weeks.