GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The 1911 furniture worker strike in Grand Rapids will be known by the number of lines drawn in the sand. It wasn’t simply a fight between the haves and have-nots or the lower- and middle-class workers versus the ownership elite. It was also a fight with distinct lines among the workers, notably religion and ethnicity.

One of the factors the helped the furniture industry thrive in Grand Rapids was its cheap labor force. Following the American Civil War, the city’s population ballooned with European immigrants searching for a fresh start. From 1865 to 1910, Grand Rapids’ population went from 15,000 residents to 110,000.

The largest immigrant groups came from the Netherlands and Poland, but Grand Rapids also saw several German, Lithuanian and Scandinavian families.

When they left their homelands, the immigrants brought their customs and traditions with them, including their religious beliefs. But labor historian Jeffrey Kleiman said the dividing lines go deeper than simply protestant or catholic.

“The Catholics are divided on the basis of ethnicity. The Germans and the Poles did not like each other in Europe. That doesn’t mean they liked each other in the United States,” Kleiman told News 8. “If you look at patterns of housing, the Poles are away from the Germans. (They wanted) a Polish parish. They didn’t want to go to a German parish.”

The breakdown had even more dividing lines for the protestants.

Though there was no legal precedent for segregating neighborhoods, the people of Grand Rapids essentially did it on their own. By the start of the 20th century, immigrants had claimed pockets of the city as their own. That’s why Grand Rapids’ West Side has such a distinct Polish history, dominating most of the land between Bridge and Leonard streets and from the Grand River all the way to Valley Avenue.

The Dutch pockets were smaller and more spread out, including the northwest neighborhood to the north of Leonard Street, much of the northeast side and the southeast side between Madison and Fuller avenues and Wealthy and Franklin streets.

According to Kleiman, those rifts between communities were the major difference between banding together and forming unions and the strike ultimately failing without a new deal.

“You take an already fragile alliance, and you splinter it. … Both Calvinist groups said, ‘Well, we’ll work with the Poles ’cause we have to. We’ll demand it and get paid extra if we have to work with the Poles. But you know, they’re going to Hell. We don’t have to worry about them,” Kleiman said. “But (the Dutch Calvinists) didn’t like the Methodists and the Baptists because they are Protestants and they should know better.”

When it came time strike, the workers were united in their demands but not in who they were as a group.

Before serving as the auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Joseph Schrembs held several roles at St. Mary Catholic Church. St. Mary’s was established in 1857 and still stands at the corner of First Street and Turner Avenue on the city’s northwest side. (Matt Jaworowski/WOOD TV8)

WISHART VS. SCHREMBS

There were also clear dividing lines among the local church’s top leaders.

Joseph Schrembs had served in several roles around Grand Rapids, including as lead pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Grand Rapids. He was named the auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Grand Rapids in January 1911, just as tensions and talk of a strike started to rise. Schrembs was considered a pro-labor bishop, an absolute rarity.

Bishop Joseph Schrembs (Courtesy: Grand Rapids Public Library Archives)

In a 2010 interview with Jeff Smith of the Grand Rapids People’s History Project, labor historian Michael Johnston claims Schrembs was one of two pro-labor Catholic bishops in world history, the other being Francis Haas, who also served in the Diocese of Grand Rapids.

According to Kleiman’s book, “Strike: How the Furniture Workers Strike of 1911 Changed Grand Rapids,” Schrembs believed the Roman Catholic church’s position lined up more with the workers than the furniture barons — “that the consolidation of labor was an equitable response to the concentration of capital.”

Schrembs inserted himself into the fray, leading the fight to avoid a strike and come up with a fair deal between the workers and the companies without an actual work stoppage. Days after thousands of workers voted nearly unanimously to strike, Schrembs and other city leaders convinced the furniture company owners and their organization — the Furniture Manufacturers Association — to put together a committee to hear out the workers and investigate whether their demands held any merit.

Rev. Alfred Wishart (Courtesy: Grand Rapids Public Library Archives)

Joining Schrembs on the committee was his counterpart, Rev. Alfred Wishart. He was hired in 1906 to take over as the pastor of Fountain Street Baptist Church, selected by a committee that included Robert Irwin, of Phoenix Furniture Co. and the father of the founders of Irwin Seating. Wishart was a firm but conservative believer in the Social Gospel, encouraging his parishioners not only to be of the world but also to influence the world around them for the greater good. He also happened to be pro-industry and got along famously with the company owners, often preaching that the public should “look to industrial leaders for industrial solutions.”

In “Strike,” Kleiman quoted Wishart as saying, “The working class are feverish, restless, pushing forward under strange standards, inspired by ideals and led by men outside the church to which many of them are indifferent or hostile.”

It seemed the only thing Schrembs and Wishart agreed on is that a work stoppage should be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, the committee’s work fell through.

On April 18, 1911, the FMA issued a statement that said the owners would not entertain any discussions with workers about a collective bargaining agreement. The next day, thousands of workers walked off the job.

Rev. Alfred Wishart led Fountain Street Baptist Church from 1906 until his death in 1933. The church, which dropped Baptist from its name in 1960, celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2019. (Matt Jaworowski/WOOD TV8)

THE DECISIVE BLOW

The strike itself lasted approximately four months, with the two sides trading jabs at one another in the press and, in a few select cases, in the streets outside of the furniture factories.

Four unions provided support for the workers to help them get by during the strike, but by August funds had run dry and many of the strikers had accepted the loss and returned to work.

On Aug. 9, the Christian Reformed Church provided the final blow to end the fight. With many strikers already gone, the church issued a decree that said church members would not be allowed to join a union. The decree gutted what was left of the worker movement. With many of their Dutch brethren walking back across the lines, the strikers knew the fight was over. On Aug. 19, the remaining strikers had voted to end their holdout and returned to work.

Wishart went on to serve another two decades as the leader of Fountain Street Church, serving as pastor until his death in 1933.

Just weeks after the strike ended and months after he was promoted to auxiliary bishop, Schrembs was promoted again, this time to serve as the bishop of the new Diocese of Toledo in Ohio. While there is no clear evidence that his role in the strike motivated the move, many historians believe the heavy influence of the local furniture barons played some role.

*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.

*Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Robert Irwin as the founder of Irwin Seating. However, Irwin’s father, also named Robert, was the one who led the Rev. Wishart hire. We regret the error, which has been fixed.