GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — From the factories that still dot downtown to the long legacy of Steelcase and others, Grand Rapids has earned the nickname Furniture City.
It was an industry that found a need, taking advantage of the Grand River and West Michigan’s white pine forests to bring jobs and cash to the area. By the end of the 19th century, more than 80 companies had established factories in the region and what years earlier was just a small riverside village had bloomed into a mid-sized city that became known as the furniture capital of the nation.
But the boom years wouldn’t last forever. By 1911, the tensions between the furniture barons and their employees had reached a breaking point. And while the strike only lasted a few months, its resolution marked the end of an era and was a foreboding sign for the industry in the years to come.
BUILDING FURNITURE CITY
According to labor historian Jeffrey Kleiman, the furniture industry is what built Grand Rapids. In 1865, the city’s population was approximately 15,000 people. By 1910, Grand Rapids boasted a population around 100,000, heavily influenced by European immigrants looking to start a new life.
The population boom fed the furniture industry. In addition to the cheap wood and cheap power provided by the river, Grand Rapids had one other big thing working to its advantage: cheap labor.
In the early 20th century, the average furniture factory employee in Grand Rapids worked six 10-hour shifts a week, earning roughly $2 per day. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for most unskilled laborers to buy and maintain a small house for their families.
They weren’t paid hourly but rather on a piece-rate system, based on how many pieces they completed during their shift. Never mind the fact that factories wouldn’t budge on raises to keep pace with inflation, workers were growing more dissatisfied with their income tied directly to the output of other people.
So why couldn’t they organize and unionize like so many other industrial employees? Well, the workers had less in common than many realize.
While Grand Rapids’ immigrants built an American industry, they still held tight to their nationalities and customs. Dutch and Polish immigrants were the two largest groups, as well as smaller pockets of Germans, Lithuanians and Scandinavians. Generally, the Poles stayed with the Poles and the Dutch stuck with the Dutch. Though there were no laws or legislation segregating the communities, they seemingly held the line together.
The owners of the furniture companies were able to use that to their advantage, keeping the groups smaller and separated, preventing any one group from forming enough political pull.
But at the start of the 20th century, things started to change. Those culture lines became more blurred as class lines emerged. Grand Rapids became a clear example of the haves and the have-nots, and the lower and middle class found the ability to fight.
INSIDE THE FURNITURE INDUSTRY
By 1911, there were more than 50 furniture companies in Grand Rapids alone, but 19 companies stood out as the industry leaders, including American Seating, Sligh, Berkey & Gay, Phoenix and Widdicomb. According to Kleiman, those 19 alone employed approximately 85% of the city’s furniture workers and was responsible for a quarter of the entire city’s work force.
One thing that made Grand Rapids’ furniture industry unique: almost all the top companies were owned locally. The lone exception was American Seating, which was a subsidiary of American Furniture Company based out of New York. The close-knit group also worked together to hold onto local power, opening their own banks and nominating each other to serve on boards. That local ownership meant less outside influence on their business.
United under the banner of the Furniture Manufacturers Association, company leaders worked together to set a baseline for profits and keep competition down – an illegal move that was eventually flagged by federal prosecutors in the 1920s.
They also worked together to keep costs low, including wages. The FMA used a card system to track employees at each furniture company, including their wages, their immigration status and any potential notes that could be used against an employee fighting for a raise or a promotion. According to labor historian Michael Johnston, leaders within the FMA even kept tabs on the tensions between employees at each factory, dictating when to provide small raises and where to hold out.
“It was very strategic: ‘Oh, let’s give a little here, a little there. Oh, we hear the workers are complaining over at Berkey & Gay. Throw some money over there quickly.’ But just do it. Be strategic,” Johnston told News 8.
While the FMA kept companies united, the low wages were still a problem, forcing some workers to leave town in search of better pay. One that ultimately propelled the call for a strike forward.
“If you really wanted a decent job, you left Grand Rapids and went to Chicago,” Johnston said.
Like the working conditions in Grand Rapids, workers in Chicago were fighting for better pay and less hours. In 1906, the workers succeeded. Instead of a raise, the workers got more free time. They were paid the same as they were for a 10-hour day, but only had to work nine hours. The changes attracted even more laborers to the area, with factories turning to Grand Rapids newspapers to place want ads to try and attract more workers — a move that struck a nerve with the leaders of the FMA.
BUILDING TOWARD THE STRIKE
Three things happened after the turn of the 20th century that ultimately put the 1911 strike in motion. First, a change in the political tides.
In 1900, the city was hit with a scandal and a wave of resignations that nearly gutted City Hall. A bond program was used to fund a pipeline and a water treatment plant for the city. But the bonds brought in much more money than needed, and several officials lined their own pockets with the leftovers. That included then-Mayor George Perry, the city attorney, the city clerk, 16 aldermen and three newspaper editors who accepted hush money to prevent the story from leaking.
By 1906, the call for reform had peaked and people of the lower and middle classes wanted a mayor who would champion their causes. Enter George Ellis, a bit of a cultural outsider, but one who was able to connect with both the Polish Catholics and the protestant Dutch.
His campaign focused on whether government should be controlled by “the people” or by the “special interests” — his term for the wealthy elite who used their money to manipulate the local laws to their favor. Ellis won the mayoral race handily, defeating incumbent Mayor Edwin Sweet and Furniture Industrialist Charles Sligh.
The next two incidents stood as tentpoles for worker dissatisfaction.
First in 1909, when three men representing the skilled cabinetmakers at Oriel Cabinet Co. asked for a cost-of-living raise. According to Kleiman, newspaper reports at the time noted steep rises in food prices. But the three were rejected and labeled “agitators” by company leaders.
Just months later, conversations about the piece-rate pay system came to a head. More than 4,000 furniture workers from across the city united informally to demand changes. The workers staged a walkout in December 1910 and were acquiesced by factory leaders, telling them they would change the pay system at the start of the new year.
After Jan. 1 came and went with no changes, employees from several plants reached out to the FMA to work on a collective bargaining agreement. In truth, the plants were already working together, just without any input from or considerations for factory workers.
Still, several community leaders, including Mayor Ellis and newly appointed Bishop Joseph Schrembs worked to maintain peace and try to get an agreement signed without a work stoppage. On April 1, days after more than 3,000 workers had come out and voted in favor of a strike, a compromise was reached — albeit temporarily.
The FMA had agreed to put together a council to analyze the claims on wages and conditions brought by the labor organizers. Tensions simmered as the committee did its research and took depositions. While much of the public sided with the workers, hardly anyone wanted to see a work stoppage, let alone the economic fallout.
But by April 18, any hopes of avoiding a strike were dashed. The FMA released a statement that said the group would not entertain any discussions for collective bargaining.
The next day, April 19, 1911, the strike officially began.
*Editor’s Note: This article is the beginning of a series looking at the 1911 strike. The following articles will be posted on woodtv.com in the coming days and weeks.