GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — By August of 1911, the furniture worker strike was on its last legs. A sluggish economy helped the furniture companies stay afloat, selling off old inventory instead of investing in new products and the support from union groups ran out of steam.
By Aug. 18, the small fraction of strikers still holding out for a collective bargaining deal admitted defeat and returned to work. But the strike’s impact on the city and the furniture industry was only beginning.
One of the first changes was some restructuring at the Furniture Manufacturers Association — the organization of local furniture barons that aimed to keep the market steady, keep costs down and ultimately prevail over the strikers.
“(At the start of the 20th century) there was an FMA, but it was really a paper organization. It didn’t do much. It was formed in 1881 and it was just real loosey-goosey,” labor historian Michael Johnston told News 8. “They reorganized it right after the 1911 strike to make it into the one that actually dominated the city.”
With the strike in their rear-view mirror, Francis Campau and other leaders within the FMA were able to take an even tighter grip on the industry.
“From 1911 on, they would all get together with the board and they’d say, ‘We’re going to advance a penny over here. Here, don’t do it.’ … It was all spelled out,” Johnston said. “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 to be strategic.’”
That tight grip eventually contributed to the industry’s downfall.
Aside from industrial control, the FMA turned its focus to take out the local leader who the organization saw as public enemy No. 1: Mayor George Ellis.
In his book “Strike! How the Furniture Workers Strike of 1911 Changed Grand Rapids,” labor historian Jeffrey Kleiman explained that the FMA had two goals: get Ellis out of office and to shift power away from local government officials.
“The solution business leaders hit upon was an overhaul of the city charter, which had happened numerous times since the adoption of the original charter in 1850,” Kleiman said in “Strike.” “At the time of the furniture strike, 24 aldermen elected from 12 wards controlled the city’s budget, while various appointed boards … and their ward supervisors determined how purchases were made and contracts let. Through their control of the city’s purse strings and their ability to distribute patronage appointments, the aldermen and the boards had amassed a great deal of power. After watching city government side with the strikers, business leaders and other conservative members of the community proposed to shift that power into the hands of professional administrators.”
The idea to overhaul the city charter preceded the strike. It was first pitched in 1910 with many different supporters on board, including Mayor Ellis. But the populace didn’t seem to trust the change and rejected it. It was brought up for a vote again in 1912 and again failed to pass, with voters seemingly leery of the people behind the push, choosing instead to stick with a city council built on neighborhood representation.
Eventually, the industrialists got their way. When the economy dipped in 1913 and 1914, the Grand Rapids Association of Commerce launched an investigation into the city’s municipal departments, looking for waste and mismanagement. The investigation was led by noted industrialist supporter Rev. Alfred Wishart, the lead pastor of Fountain Street Baptist Church. In January 1915, the committee announced its findings, calling for an overhaul to the city charter and for a special commission to map it out.
One member each was elected from each of the city’s 12 wards, plus three at-large members. Among them were industrialists Charles Sligh and Jacob Steketee and former mayors George Perry and W. Millard Palmer.
The new charter was eventually put up to a vote in the summer of 1916. Instead of community representation, the charter called for a commission of three to five members, all voted at large. And instead of a citywide vote for mayor, the commission would choose who would serve in that role, along with who would serve as the city manager.
The charter proposal had widespread support among industrialists and got favorable views in the press. But even without an organized opposition, the vote was far from a slam dunk, passing with a final tally of 7,693 to 6,021. Kleiman called it “ironic” that lower- and middle-class workers voted in favor of a political system that stripped them of a voice.
“After a decade of struggle, the furniture manufacturers and other economic leaders of the new industrial city finally controlled the government,” Kleiman said in “Strike.” “Given the context of local politics, the manufacturers’ program of reform presented voters with an alternative strategy for preserving their material gains while participating in the political process.”
While the public representation in Grand Rapids has changed and people of Grand Rapids once again elect their mayor and a more representative city commission, much of the municipal process is still run and authorized by an appointed city manager.
At while the FMA worked on the amended city charter, business leaders never took their eyes off Ellis. The longtime mayor and noted labor supporter made many high-profile enemies during the strike. Ellis was able to survive the 1912 election, largely thanks to a split vote.
Many industrialists threw their support behind Perry, who had served as mayor from 1898 to 1902. They focused the campaign on Ellis’ teetotalling ways and his decisions to limit the number of saloons within the city. And while that may have siphoned some votes away from the incumbent, it was a socialist candidate who made the biggest difference.
Edward Kosten made the election a three-way race. After a final tally, Ellis topped Perry by 541 votes. Kosten earned a surprising 2,315 votes — four times the amount the socialist candidate had received in the previous election — and likely cost Perry the win.
It wasn’t until 1916, just months before the new city charter was passed, that the industrialists were able to get rid of Ellis.
After another close win in 1914, Ellis entered 1916 seeking his sixth term as mayor. This time, industrialists found a candidate that could go toe-to-toe with Ellis: George P. Tilma. The woodcarver-turned-politician railed against Ellis’ tendency to put himself in the middle of every fight and pitched himself as the bipartisan candidate, concentrated on making sound, common sense financial decisions. Tilma’s Dutch heritage also played a role, siphoning off more votes from his Republican counterpart, enough to secure a razor-thin victory.
Ellis was shocked by the loss and spent several weeks chastising the press and fighting to overturn the results. He also accused the brain trust at Calvin College of getting involved in the race by encouraging students to register to vote — a heavily Dutch group that would seemingly side with Tilma. However, after two months, Ellis withdrew his court appeals and conceded.
A CHANGING OF THE GUARD
In the wake of the strike, furniture manufacturing continued to fuel Grand Rapids, but some key problems plagued the industry and ultimately caused a major shift.
The FMA’s tight grip on the industry kept costs down but the low wages were a persistent problem.
“They wanted a way to control (the industry) because they were constantly leaking their workforce. It was high turnover,” Johnston told News 8. “If you really wanted a decent job, you left Grand Rapids and went to (Chicago). It got so bad that Francis Campau, who is now the director of the FMA in 1911, he is going to the newspapers and trying to prevent want ads from all of these factories from taking our workers away. He was (upset) and they were (upset) at the newspapers.”
By the end of the 1920s, most of Grand Rapids’ furniture companies had changed hands — either sold off or handed down to the next generation. But that high turnover eventually caught up with the industrialists.
“Furniture was not highly profitable because of the product,” Johnston said. “Originally, it was located on the Grand River. We had the white pine, cheap furniture, but the resources started shifting. And it was shifting south by the early 1920s. The Great Depression hit the furniture industry first, not 1929. Furniture dropped dramatically in 1925.”
He continued: “So, it was a combination of the oncoming depression. It was the fact that you could make cheaper furniture in North Carolina. It was the fact that the furniture barons, a lot of them were gone, had passed on. The furniture practice had changed hands. And it was partly because they always had a struggle getting a good workforce.”
By the end of the decade, even the city’s largest furniture companies were in serious trouble.
Berkey & Gay, which employed more than 450 people in 1911, was forced to sell $10 million in assets to a Chicago company after a sharp decline in sales. The once-proud Michigan titan declared bankruptcy in 1931.
Grand Rapids Show Case Co., which was the second-largest furniture company in the city in 1911, was forced into a merger by 1926.
In 1929, the Widdicomb family, which had been at the forefront of the furniture industry for decades, divested its stake in the John Widdicomb Co.
Sligh Furniture Co., Grand Rapids’ fifth-largest furniture company in 1911, had liquidated its assets and shut down by 1932.
Still, some savvy entrepreneurs were able to read the tea leaves and move along with the changing economy. The biggest sea change was a new niche industry: office furniture.
Steelcase — originally known as The Metal Office Furniture Company — was founded in 1912. Starting with a series of patents and a lightweight steel trash can, the company boomed into an international giant that still operates in West Michigan.
In 1932, Steel Furniture Co. was purchased by Earle, Eber and Robert Irwin — the sons of Phoenix Furniture’s Robert Irwin. The company changed its name to Irwin Seating Co. and instead of traditional pine furniture, the company shifted to a different demographic, furniture for classrooms, auditoriums and theaters.
Companies like American Seating and Klingman’s were able to stay afloat and thrive following the depression. Along with the survivors, Steelcase, Irwin Seating and Holland’s Herman Miller firmly established on the national market, West Michigan was able to maintain Grand Rapids’ moniker as Furniture City.
*Editor’s Note: This is the final article of a six-part series looking at the 1911 strike. Find the others here at woodtv.com.