It was 105 years ago this month that workers voted to end the strike against the furniture industry in Grand Rapids.
Over 6,000 workers went on strike in April of 1911 against poor wages, long hours and exploitative working conditions. The furniture barons responded by bringing in scab workers from out of town and to engage in a strategy of attrition, by wearing down the workers and holding out against their demands.
In the next several postings on the Grand Rapids People’s History Project, we will look at various players in the 1911 furniture workers strike. Today, we will be looking at Bishop Joseph Schrembs, the catholic bishop, whom the labor movement referred to as “Angel of the Workers.”
Bishop Schrembs role is significant on many levels. First, the bishop was invited to be part of a negotiating committee, along with Rev. Alfred Wishart, from Fountain Street Church. Workers had clear demands ast the time, but the furniture barons were unwilling to compromise and diminish their profits.
The committee that included Schrembs and Wishart, was created for the following reason:
“To obtain from any employee or group of employees, either individually or through their representatives, a statement of their grievances and proposals together with their reasons therefore.” (Lydens, The Story of Grand Rapids)
The workers were demanding a 9 hour work day, a 10% increase in wages, the elimination of piecework and the establishment of a minimum wage. Workers also demanded the right to form unions and engage in collective bargaining.
At the time, the furniture barons were blacklisting workers who had any sort of union affiliation, which often resulted in their termination from the company. Schrembs himself pushed for the 9 hour work day and also, “asked whether it was fair for employers acting in an association, to deny the right of union to their men.” Schrembs was referring to the Manufacturers Association, which was the dominant business association the furniture barons belonged to.
The committee heard testimony from workers in the lobby of the old Livingston Hotel on the corner of Fulton and Division. After hearing testimony from workers over several days the committee then met amongst themselves with the intent of publishing their findings. However, the Furniture Manufacturers Association stated on April 18 of 1911, that it would “not deal with workers in any form of collective bargaining.” (Kleiman, Strike: How the Furniture Workers Strike of 1911 Changed Grand Rapids) The workers called for a massive strike the very next day.
After several weeks and growing tensions between the industrialists and workers, Bishop Schrembs began to speak out against the injustice being done to the workers.
”I consider the present labor situation in our city as a most deplorable one from every point of view. I would welcome and hasten the day when compulsory arbitration will force men dealing with their fellow men to let fairness and justice come to their own through reasonable methods rather than through the cowering of men’s hearts through the cruel pangs of hunger of their wives and children.”
Bishop Schrembs would also invited to speak at several rallies held by the workers over the 17 weeks of the strike. At one rally in early May at the Ramona Theater in Grand Rapids, where the bishop addressed some 2,500 striking workers, he “praised the workers’ moderation and and restraint, noting that had it not been for the labor unions, we would still have the conditions which shamed men and women one or two generations ago.” (Kleiman, Strike)
Such pronouncements by Schrembs did come at a price. The furniture barons and wealthy sectors of Grand Rapids began to question the bishop and make accusations against him. In an open letter in one of the industry’s publications, Francis Campau:
“asserted that Schrembs promoted discord by encouraging a sense of ingratitude among the working class for all the benefits that they had reaped through the factory owners’ efforts. The men who are the owners and the managers of the furniture factories in this city……lived here all their lives. They and their ancestors are to be credited with making Grand Rapids the name it has in the world today as a furniture center. It was unjust, he claimed, to insinuate they are conducting slave-driving institutions and standing as the oppressors of labor.” (Kleiman, Strike)
Eventually the mutual aid provided by the unions to striking workers and their families took its tool. On August 19, after 17 weeks of striking, most workers voted to go back to work and thus the strike ended.
On August 9, the Christian Reformed Church came out with an official decree that no worker who belonged to the church would be allowed to join a union.
Shortly after the strike ended, Bishop Joseph Schrembs was reassigned to the Toledo, Ohio diocese. There is no hard evidence that Schrembs departure was due to his role in supporting striking workers, but the timing of such a decision suggests otherwise.