(This is an article written by local labor historian Michael Johnston and is re-printed with permission from the author.)
In 1900 Grand Rapids was a bustling river town, not fully settled, but no longer frontier. The red light district was located in the river valley while the mansions of the wealthy overlooked the city from Heritage Hill.
Only seventeen years earlier, the last great log run swept away the railroad bridge near Ann Street. Crowds gathered along the banks of the Grand River to watch as thousands of white pine logs created a jam seven miles long and thirty feet deep. Perhaps this is why so many furniture factories started in the “valley city” — cheap wood, cheap water power, and cheap labor. Scattered along the river and throughout the city were 85 furniture and woodworking factories. Berkey and Gay, Widdicomb, American School Furniture Co. (American Seating), Sligh, Stickley Bros. and others were just then making this medium size city of 87,576 the furniture capital of the United States, a title it held until the Great Depression.
It was this cheap labor that bothered Thomas Kidd, secretary of the newly formed Amalgamated Wood Workers International Union (est. 1895). Low Grand Rapids wages were depressing the earnings of his members.
If the union was to grow, Grand Rapids workers needed to be brought into the fold. Kidd made numerous speaking trips to the city passionately and eloquently presenting his case to the English, Irish, German, Dutch, Polish, and Lithuanian finishers, rubbers, cabinet makers, sanders, and machine hands who compromised the 7,000 workers of Furniture City, USA.
“The most foolish and silly thing the working men have done of late years is to allow themselves to be kept divided by the religious question. Who ever heard of a corporation, a trust, or a combination of any kind, of capitalists allowing any question foreign to the objects for which they are organized to enter into their consideration at all? Everything likely to create discord is wisely cast aside, and all keep their eye on the main thing — the dollar. That is what they are after.”
“All the institutions of the country are used against us, even our chump of a president, Grover Cleveland [enthusiastic applause] and our condition will never be improved with being a better Democrat or a better Republican. Is all this not enough without our quarreling over questions of faith and thus assisting the enemy to bind us still tighter? [Many of the Dutch were opposed to trade unions.] The working men of this country are gradually but surely getting behind those of other countries. I am a Scotsman and I never worked over eight hours per day, nor on Saturday afternoons until I cam to this progressive country.”
“The union label is the coming power, and it will do away with strikes. The wood workers have adopted a label and already a furniture manufacturer in Chicago is using it on all his furniture, and a Minneapolis manufacturer will at one begin using 22,000 labels a week, and there will be no more strikes there. Furniture without the label can easily be boycotted through the central bodies in other cities.”
“In comparison with other furniture localities, wages here are fairly good, but if the workers here remain unorganized it will only be a matter of time when the employers will have to cut you still lower in order to compete with furniture from other parts. Reason as you will, experience proves conclusively that you will never get better wages unless you organize. In Oshkosh and Marshfield, Wisconsin, wages were as low as five cents an hour before unions were organized in those places, and the men were working eight hours a day, forty cents a day! Just think of it. Do you want to come to that? If you do, continue to go it alone, each man for himself, and you will get it, just as sure as you live.”
Despite Kidd’s best efforts, Grand Rapids Local 46 and Spindle Carvers Local 84 never numbered more than 200 members. In March, the AWWIU held its national convention in Grand Rapids. If the workers would not come to the union, the union would come to them. As hosts, Local 46 and 84 hand made convention badges of “white maple veneer handsomely lettered and mounted.” Sixty-eight delegates attended the week long session.
Most were German immigrants with a few English, French, and Swedes thrown in. The constitution was amended and union policies debated. However, all was not work. Germans, being Germans, and definitely not following the temperance fashion of the times, attended a social session held for the delegates entertainment:
“When the social session opened at 9 p.m. the hall was crowded, over four hundred present. ‘Elk’s mil’ was the first order of business and after several trips of the white-aproned dispensers, the fun began.”
An invitation was sent by the delegates to the local furniture manufacturers inviting them to meet with the union’s officers to discuss the advantages of the union label. Sligh, Rettig & Sweet, and the Luce Company agreed to meet.
The appointed time came and went, but no furniture representatives.
Unwilling to was the evening, the AWWIU officers decided to take in a performance at the Powers Theater. And what should be playing but “Sappho,” a performance so risqué, with the actress who portrayed a Greek heroine baring her arms and feet, that it had been banned in New York City and Kalamazoo, Michigan.
However, this was not the only thing laid bare that night. It seems the lure of culture was too strong for even upright, respectable businessmen, for there, seated in the crowded theater, were the errant furniture barons.
Kidd never did organize the furniture workers of Grand Rapids, despite his charismatic appeal and unceasing efforts. It would take another organizer and another union to lead Grand Rapids furniture workers in the Great 1911 Furniture Strike.
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