McLean County Labor History: 1930s Depression organizing
Updated On: Sep 03, 2014
The 1930s Depression impacted Bloomington like the rest of the nation, leading to mass lay-offs, unemployment and foreclosures. With little commerce, railroad traffic dwindled and many at the C&A Shops and other businesses were laid off. Joseph Dewey Penn, a veteran machinist, remembered:
I got laid off back in the Crash -- you know, the Wall Street crash. Back in the 30s. It was tough. That was when pork chops was 15 cents a pound and nobody had it. ...I went everywhere looking for a job. ...I went to one place in Indiana, two hundred in a line going after one job, 40 cents an hour. That's all this job was paying in them days. Paid 40 cents an hour and the guy said, I wished I'd waited and I'd hired you. You said you was a machinist.' ...Pretty hard sometimes just to hit anything. Forty cents an hour. I didn't do much when I was first laid off -- 29 crash. I didn't think it would last. But it did -- it lasted too long (Matejka & Koos, 46-47).
A variety of responses were tried locally to aid unemployed workers. Community gardens were a common response and the local township governments sponsored canning facilities to help unemployed workers store food for the coming winter. Those on township relief were paid in county script, redeemable at certain stores for groceries. To earn the script unemployed workers had to perform community jobs, like planting in the gardens, harvesting or community clean-up efforts.
The Bloomington Association of Commerce and Industry, the Trades & Labor Assembly, the American Legion and certain clergy banded together in 1932 to form the Bloomington Civic Relief Committee, trying to find work for the unemployed. They proposed a community survey, locating those who needed home repairs done, to build employment. But with 2,000 unemployed in Bloomington, such an effort was too small in scale to stem massive unemployment.
Some workers began to doubt the economic system itself, wondering why they were starving in a land of plenty. Some called for redistribution of wealth or a different economic and political system to insure opportunities for all. Henry Hornspan summed up these feelings in a January 28, 1932 letter to the editor of the Bloomington Pantagraph:
A government is a large family, we are all eating at the same table, and Uncle Sam is at the head, dishing out great plates of food for some of his favorite children.
But a lot of us at the foot of the table are getting almost empty plates... He tells us to work and he will fill our dinner plates. We are ready to work if we can get it. We know our brothers at the head of the table have work. They are scientists, professional men, bankers, etc. We are only farm help, coal shovelers, odd jobs workers. We are needed.
Don't you think it would be fair...if you would take a few eats from some of the big plates of food at the head of the table and pass it down to us at the bottom? ...We can't all be big manufacturers ("Letters," 4).
A different Depression-era response was organizing an Unemployed Council. Their first local effort in January 1932 was a survey of Bloomington poverty. They found 2,115 unemployed workers with 4,540 dependents living in the city, along with 244 empty houses. The Council had a headquarters at 106 West Front Street in Bloomington, where weekly meetings addressed topical issues. Two themes in January 1932 were "Alternatives to Capitalism: Reflections on Fr. Coughlin," discussing the famous "radio priest" from Michigan, and "Class Solidarity." All meetings ended with the singing of "America." Up to 700 people attended these weekly sessions, 1,800 their first mass gathering (Mayer, 89).
The Unemployed Council was not necessarily hostile to the Civic Relief Committee. They helped locate vacant lots for community gardens which the Committee sponsored. The Council also worked with Barbers Local 95 and the YMCA to sponsor "free haircuts" for unemployed workers.
With Bloomington owning a municipal power plant, the Council pushed for rate relief for the unemployed, appearing frequently at City Council meetings with petitions. On February 4, 1932 they held an "Unemployed March," with 180 people trudging through February's slush and snow. The demanded unemployment insurance, with signs calling for a World War I veteran's bonus, jobs, and another proclaiming, "Nobody gets cake until we get bread."
Over 500 attended their rally on the courthouse steps. Besides singing traditional labor songs, they also sang the "Internationale," frequently identified with the communist movement. That night 700 attended their weekly meeting and C. Henry Mayer, the Council's head, called for labor and capital to cooperate to solve social problems, saying their had been enough "individualism" in America. A harsher message came from Ed Lobb, who threatened that "the unemployed men were awake and would be doing more if capitalism didn't correct its inherent defects."
The Council's last big confrontation came in June 1933, when the Bloomington City Council was considering a fee structure for fishing and swimming in Miller Park Lake. The Unemployed Council attacked this as an infringement on one of the few free resources the unemployed could enjoy. In their petition to the City Council, they wrote:
Whereas, approximately 2,500 families and their dependents...find themselves totally unemployed and with no means of relief... Whereas, the unemployed are forced to live in hovels and shacks and double as many as five and six families in one house because the Relief refuses to pay rent, and Whereas, the unemployed are forced to bathe in buckets, pans and washtubs because the cheap houses have no bath tubs...The Unemployed Councils of Bloomington go on record asking for...free fishing and swimming.
The City Council did not totally back down, but did agree that children under 16 could swim for free from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Mondays (Matejka, 7).
Voters in 1932 not only elected Franklin D. Roosevelt president, who began a whole series of federal relief programs, but also voted in an Illinois income tax, with the money earmarked for the unemployed. These efforts helped answer Depression problems and the Unemployed Council slowly dwindled, its activists now more concerned with union organization.
When President Roosevelt formulated his National Recovery Act (NRA) in 1933, Section 7a recognized workers' right to organize into unions, saying that "employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing." Employer resistance meant the product would not be certified by the NRA, losing the right to carry the NRA's famous "Blue Eagle" symbol. This union organizing right became law in 1935 with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This law not only recognized a union's right to exist but penalized employers who refused union recognition. It set up a system of secret ballot elections for workers to choose whether or not they wanted union representation. This legal recognition of a union's right to exist, along with massive organizing spurred by the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), led 7-9 million workers to join unions between 1937-1941.
The CIO unions, led by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers, broke away from the AFL by promoting "industrial unionism." Instead of organizing workers according to craft or skill as the AFL advocated, the CIO preached organizing all workers in one industry into one union, establishing the United Auto Workers, United Steelworkers and other new organizations.
Although criticizing the AFL for its organizing methods, the CIO's activities galvanized the AFL to new organizing outreach, and by the decade's end the AFL was still larger than the newly organized labor federation, having also organized new workers. The Trades and Labor Assembly in Bloomington supported industrial organizing, but within the AFL structure, and two new organizations took advantage of these opportunities to unionize, Machinists Lodge 1000 and Bakery Workers Local 342.
While other businesses were closing or laying workers off in the early 1930s, one Bloomington industrial employer almost doubled their employment -- Williams Oil-O-Matic.Williams 1929 payroll of 189 was 336 by 1934. This producer of oil burners, furnaces and refrigerators enjoyed quick growth and expansion throughout the 1920s and weathered the Depression better than many businesses. In July 1933 Williams increased pay so that all workers made at least fifty cents an hours; those making more than fifty cents received a five percent pay raise. The company also cut its work week from 50 to 40 hours. Williams became the first local business to meet NRA requirements ("Williams Factory, 4). However, after the NRA was declared unconstitutional, wages again dropped to 40 cents an hour.
Williams workers first attempted unionization in May 1934, organizing with the International Association of Machinists. The workers sought union recognition by Williams, were refused, and began picketing the plant. Williams closed the operation. Williams rebuked the workers with a full-page newspaper ad, headlined "Know the Truth...Then Let's Go to Work in Harmony." The company explained their plant shut-down in the ad:
Those interests, through agitation, coercion and promises that can never be fulfilled, brought about a drop in production to the point where it was no longer possible to continue factory operations.
The plant was then closed to give the men the opportunity of deciding whether they desired to remain free men or to lose their identities and become tools in the hands of outside influences ("Get the Facts, page 8).
The company advertised that it would accept returning workers the following Monday. On May 8 the Machinists and Williams reached an agreement, under the supervision of B.M. Marshman, a U.S. Department of Labor conciliator. The union did not gain a contract, but the company agreed to rehire all its workers without discrimination and to meet semi-monthly with its employees to discuss collective bargaining and workplace issues, but with no guarantees. Marshman commented that there were wild rumors concerning high pay for C.U. and Walter Williams and an extra large dividend for stockholders, rather than more pay for workers. Commenting on the negotiations, Marshman said, "These conversations today will do one thing, I feel sure; they will make men and management happier in mind and heart, and this will raise the efficiency of the plant ("325 Williams Men," 4)." Walter Gesell, who started at Williams in 1927, considered the agreement a "sell-out" by the union (Matejka, 5).
Williams workers waited three years before organizing again. This time, with the support of the NLRA, they won union recognition. Organized into Progressive Lodge 1000 of the International Association of Machinists, Williams workers demanded a 60 cent minimum wage, a 20 increase for all employees above the minimum level and abolition of the bonus system. Frustrated with their negotiating process with the company, the 501 workers struck on May 5, 1937.
Despite intervention by federal mediators, by mid-month no progress was made. The company responded by helping organize what was known as a "company union," the "Heating and Refrigeration Club," which then attempted to negotiate a settlement. Williams also wondered in public advertisements why workers would strike when they enjoyed company subsidies for YMCA memberships, a yearly Christmas party, and the establishment of a credit union with a $500 company donation. On May 13 Williams workers convened again, voting to continue to strike and to "use peaceful methods to keep everyone from entering the plant (Union replies, 4)."
With no negotiated progress, by the month's end both sides agreed to a NLRA supervised election, choosing between the Machinists and the Heating and Refrigerating Club as the two alternative representatives. On Saturday, May 29, 1937, Williams workers voted 255-139 for Machinists Lodge 1000. The company accepted the verdict and the two sides began negotiating their first labor contract that week (Workers, 4). Six weeks later on June 5 that contract was signed. Gessell remembered wages going from a starting rate of 37 cents per hour to 85 cents with that first contract. He and other old-timers remember rumors floating at the time that if the workers were going to have a union, C.U. Williams wanted it to be an AFL union, not a CIO affiliate. Larry Yeast, who started at Williams in 1941 and later became Lodge 1000 union representative, said that company negotiator Jake Blair told him later: "Red,' he says, I fought this union tooth and nail when it came in here.' He thought it was communist. But I never made a living until the union came in (Yeast).'"
Laborers Local 362 was also negotiating that week, seeking recognition for nine workers at Salzman's Auto Salvage at 1402 S. Oak Street, where workers wanted 50 cents an hour and a 48 hour week, instead of the 23 cents an hour they were earning. And on April 28 Barbers 95 members marched from shop to shop, demanding that barbers join the union, adding 15 new shops.
The other group organizing in town, who preceded the Williams workers and then fought six months later for a contract, was the predominately female workforce at Beich Candy Company.
Beich workers were the first to walk, establishing picket lines on April 29. Negotiations were on-going with the company, but plant workers complained of a speed-up and ridicule from supervisors, spontaneously launching their walk-out.
Complaints from the candy makers were their low piece-work wages, 25 to 30 cents an hour, and irregular work. Workers were selected daily to work with no guarantee of regular employment. Dora Giese remembered:
I'd seen the time, when I walked all the way down to Beich's, and you had to stand and wait and if the floor lady, if she decided she wanted you, then you got to work. And if she didn't want you, you had to go home; and if they decided in-between times that they could use you... they called you to come back; if you didn't you didn't have to look for work for awhile (Giese).
Another frequent complaint was that workers would have to "bribe" their floor-lady or supervisor with food or a gift to be selected to work.
Following the AFL model, the Beich Candy Company workers organized by craft, separated into four locals. Most of the women belonged to Bakery Workers 342; machine maintenance and repair personnel were Machinist Lodge 1000 members; loading dock employees joined Teamsters Local 26; and the boiler room worker were in Stationery Engineers Local 399.
The spring strike was more like a holiday for the women in the candy plant, Giese said that "When we went out in May, it was nice. We didn't mind it. Just like us girls, we were embroidering quilt blocks, the men, they played cards."
Two weeks later Beich Candy signed a six-month contract, granting the women a 14 percent piece rate increase, up to 35 cents an hour, the men up to 45 cents, with an additional penny each month for the next five months.
It was, however, just a six month contract. In cold December the company wanted a 20 percent pay cut and abolition of the union shop. The union shop meant all production workers would join the union.
On December 11, 1937, 300 candy workers walked out again. Giese remembered that "It was on a Saturday, that we were going out, we just walked away from the lines and left. ...The candy was running over."
This was no spring battle; the workers rented a garage in the neighborhood to establish a soup kitchen and set up a strike shack. Within two days there were shivering as a sleet and rain storm pelted their picket lines. The company announced it was moving to Chicago, cutting phone lines to the Bloomington plant and directing all mail to its Merchandise Mart office.
On December 30 the workers unanimously rejected a company offer which would have reduced wages 5-9 cents per hour for women and brought in the open shop.
A winter strike was a difficult undertaking for a fledgling union. Giese was on the "begging committee" that solicited local businesses for support and material aid:
It was cold. ...We used to go places for soup bones and vegetables. She (the picket captain) cooked vegetable soup or bean soup. ...If you was on picket duty you went down there to the garage and then got a bowl of soup to eat...and I mean, it was rough.
We had to go to taverns and beg for cigarettes, we had to go to the coal companies and ask them if they would charge coal for people, the same as grocery stores. ...Everybody didn't have cars, and we couldn't really afford to go, gasoline wasn't high then, we just didn't have the money, so we had to walk different places.
The workers twice physically confronted the company on its property. On January 3, 1938, a railroad locomotive was dispatched to remove a boxcar from the company's spur. The workers blocked the tracks, fearing the car was loaded with the plant's machinery. On the third day the car moved, but only after the workers inspected it, finding it filled with sugar, not machinery.
On January 18 the company announced it would rehire workers under the old agreement, or it would hire new workers. The next morning 450 workers surrounded the plant, preventing entrance to the facility, not even allowing company president Otto Beich to enter. On January 21 the Trades & Labor Assembly asked the city to intervene and mediate. On January 26 the two sides and the Labor Assembly met in the mayor's office for four hours. The company proposed a 35 cent an hour rate for a 48-hour week and an open shop. Workers rejected the offer 145-15.
With this rejection both sides again returned to Mayor Mark Hayes' office, and on February 2-3, 1938 an agreement was reached. The new contract insured a 44-hour work week, gave women 37 cents per hour, men 50 cents an hour, established an arbitration process and the union shop. The other unions at Beich Candy later had strikes, but Bakery Workers Local 342 never struck the candy company again until after the Beich family sold the plant (Matejka).
Union organizing slowed after these two major industrial concerns were organized. The Machinists did add Meadows Manufacturing to their roster after organizing at Williams.
Livingston & McLean Counties Bldg & Trades Council