Celebrating the Grand Rapids Furniture Workers Strike of 1911: Lessons for contemporary organizing and resistance

On April 19, it will be 106 years since hundreds of furniture workers walked off the job in Grand Rapids protesting working conditions, wages and the lack of an 8 hour work day. 

We have been researching this historic event over the years and want to offer the following information for those who want to familiarize themselves with this history, learn from it and think about the significance of working class tactics for todays organizing efforts.

First we highly recommend Jeffrey Kleiman’s book, Strike: How the Furniture Workers Strike of 1911 Changed Grand Rapids.

In addition, on the Grand Rapids People’s History site, we have written or republished numerous articles based on our own research over the years as it relates to the 1911 Grand Rapids Furniture workers strike.

First is a two-part article written by Michael Johnston, who is know by many as the unofficial labor historian of Grand Rapids. In Part I of his two-part series, Johnston provides important historical context, a context that led to the massive worker walkout on April 19 of 1911.

In Part II, Johnston writes about the role that the IWW (industrial Workers of the World) played in the 1911 strike and how the local power structure and even many of the other unions saw them as a threat.

We also include in this primer on the 1911 furniture workers strike, some articles about other factors that played into the outcome of the strike. First, we look at the role of religion and how Christian Reformed Church members were told not to participate in the strike, while the Catholic Bishop at the time was in full support of the striking workers.

Then there are those who documented the strike at the time. We wrote a piece that contrasted the observations of Viva Flaherty, a socialist, who provides a great reflection on what happened during the 1911 strike, and how one of the Furniture barons (R. W. Irwin) documented what took place.

In another article we have written, we note that there were 10,000 workers marching in the Labor Day parade in 1911. Not only was this an impressive number of workers, but it was essentially about 10% of the entire population of Grand Rapids in 1911. Imagine if 10% of working class people took part in a contemporary Labor Day parade or action.

In yet another piece, we contrast the living conditions of those in the capitalist class – the Furniture Factory owners – and those who actually created the wealth for these men – the furniture workers.

Lastly, we include an article about the backlash from the 1911 furniture workers strike. The capitalist class was not happy about the 1911 strike, even though they ended up winning. However, those in power are never content with just winning certain battles, they want to prevent future attempts to challenge their power. What the Robber Baron class did was to change the City Charter, which resulted in decreasing the number of city wards to just 3 and eliminating a strong mayor position. The result of this charter change would make it harder for working class people to have real representation on the city commission and to make the mayor a glorified commissioner.

Again, it is important that we come to terms with understanding this local history, reflecting on it and thinking about what it means for current struggles against the power structure in Grand Rapids.

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Artwork highlights a People’s History in Grand Rapids – Print #12 – the struggle for LGBTQ equality in West Michigan

Last semester, art students in Brett Colley’s GVSU class on printmaking, invited me to come talk about the Grand Rapids People’s History Project. The intent of the class was to have students investigate their own part of a People’s History of Grand Rapids and then make a print based upon an individual social movement or a particular moment in Grand Rapids history.

This print is by Amelia Cleveland and focuses on the history of the LGBTQ community in Grand Rapids. The print is based on two aspects of the local LGBTQ history. First, the Mayor of Grand Rapids in 1988 was Gerald Helmholt, who refused to endorse the first Pride Celebration in this community. Interestingly enough, in the following year, the Mayor of Holland sent a letter of endorsement of the Pride Celebration in Grand Rapids, even though most people would have considered Grand Rapids to be the more progressive community.

The print by Amelia Cleveland juxtaposes these two very different responses from two elected officials in West Michigan. For more details on this history go to this link

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Interview with Odawa War & Peace Chief 1993

This posting is based on an interview from the independent newspaper, The Fundamentalist in the summer of 1993. The entire interview is linked in the posting, but a summary is what we are providing.

One of the co-editors of the Fundamentalist newspaper conducted an interview with the Odawa War & Peace Chief, known as Black Eagle. To those of us who knew him, we called him Pine.

Pine participated in part of the 1988 Walk for Disarmament in Michigan, which began at the south part of the Mackinac Bridge.

According to one news report, Black Eagle would refuse to drive with a Michigan drivers license, because he wanted to continually challenge the ongoing treaty violations. Around the same time that the interview with Black Eagle was conducted, he was in the process of finishing a book that, “amassed evidence he thinks proves that the 19th Century treaties between Ottawas and Chippewas (he prefers the more traditional names Odawa and Ojibway) and the United States are false or forgeries. He also argues that the 1924 act of Congress making Indians U.S. citizens and the 1943 Indian Reorganization Act, which recognized various tribes, are unconstitutional.” 

One quote from the interview is very revealing. It states:

Pine puts the problem of tribal councils forcefully: “The earth is being destroyed and polluted, and tribal councils are taking part in signing leases to multinationals through the US bureaucracy. Tribal councils have nothing to support the Anishinaabe way of life, but when election time comes around, they are very quick to put on the mask of tradition.”

To read the entire interview, go here

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Artwork highlights a People’s History in Grand Rapids – Print #11 – Animal Rights Movement in West Michigan

Last semester, art students in Brett Colley’s GVSU class on printmaking, invited me to come talk about the Grand Rapids People’s History Project. The intent of the class was to have students investigate their own part of a People’s History of Grand Rapids and then make a print based upon an individual social movement or a particular moment in Grand Rapids history.

This print is by Erin Eastham and it focuses on the 1990s Animal Rights/Animal Liberation Movement in West Michigan, know as West Michigan for Animals. The print specifically draws attention to the anti-vivisection organizing being done by the group and focuses on a former school teacher Dick Mercer, who was integral to the anti-vivisection organizing.

For more articles and interviews with people involved in the local animal rights movement, click here.

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Interview with an Anishinaabe working in the the Grand Rapids Public Schools – 1992

This interview was conducted by one of the co-editor’s of the independent newspaper in Grand Rapids during the 1990s, The Fundamentalist.

The interview, published in its entirety, was part of an issue of the independent newspaper that was completely devoted to indigenous issues, around the 5ooth anniversary of the European colonization of what are now referred to as the Americas.

The Native American Education Program in the Grand Rapids Public Schools, which is discussed in this interview, lost its funding and no longer exists.

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Artwork highlights a People’s History in Grand Rapids – Print #10 – the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement

Last semester, art students in Brett Colley’s class on printmaking, invited me to come talk about the Grand Rapids People’s History Project. The intent of the class was to have students investigate their own part of a People’s History of Grand Rapids and then make a print based upon an individual social movement or a particular moment in Grand Rapids history.

This print is by Jenny DeWitt and celebrates the 1985 Grand Rapids School Board vote in favor of divesting from Apartheid South Africa. The GRPS School Board voted 7 – 2 in favor of divesting from South African Apartheid. This effort was part of a decades long campaign that included getting the City of Grand Rapids to divest and Calvin College to divest from Apartheid South African. The only entity that did not endorse the campaign was the Kent County Commission.

One can read about the decades long campaign against South African Apartheid, by clicking here to read the 92 pages on the Grand Rapids anti-Apartheid movement.

Posted in Anti-Apartheid Movement, People's History Artwork | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

High rent and overcrowding was a potential threat of “slum development” for blacks in a 1947 Grand Rapids Urban League study

We would like to thank the staff at the Grand Rapids Public Library in their History and Special Collections sections for assisting us in find the documents needed for this post.

phillips_webThree weeks ago we posted an article about a 1940 survey done by the Grand Rapids Urban League on the state of African Americans. 

The 1940 Urban League study looked a several major indicators on the quality of life for African Americans in Grand Rapids, such as jobs, health, education and housing. We came across another study conducted in 1947, also by the Grand Rapids Urban League, a study that was led by one of the leaders of the black community, Paul I. Phillips. (pictured here)

The study made some comparisons between white and black housing dynamics. White had a higher rate of home ownership, while black families had more people living in homes or apartments than their white counterparts. There is a difference in the condition of the homes, the size of the dwellings and the cost of rent for those who were not homeowners, as you can see from the chart below.

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The 1947 study by the Grand Rapids Urban League provides important context for post-WWII housing issues along racial lines that can inform us about contemporary housing issues that the black community is facing.

The summary of the study states:

A housing crisis exists that is affecting all groups of people. For the majority of white families, it is a temporary problem. But for the majority of Negro families, it is a permanent problem unless a change occurs in the present pattern, so that Negro-American families obtain the opportunity for movement and expansion.

Of the majority of houses, the general physical conditions are good, but there is a potential threat of slum development in several areas.

And let it be remembered that overcrowding in living conditions tends to affect the health and the cultural and moral development of the family.

One additional part from the study included comments from both white and black residents in Grand Rapids. The questions asked had to do with race relations, employment and housing. The responses are instructive and you can read them all at end of the study, by going to this link

Here are two examples, the first from a white person and the second from a black person. 

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Posted in Civil Rights/Freedom Movement, Neighborhood organizing | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments