The Furniture Worker Strike of 1911: The key players

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In the long, tumultuous labor history of the United States, Grand Rapids is not seen as one of the key players. Those honors belong to the workers in Chicago, Detroit and other industrial cities. But the union movement was present in West Michigan and made a lasting mark on Furniture City.

In the coming days, News 8 will publish a series of articles about the 1911 furniture factory strike: what led up to it, how it resolved, and how it impacted the industry in the decades to come.

First, let’s highlight the people who held key roles in this story:

GEORGE ELLIS

George Ellis served as the mayor of Grand Rapids from 1906 to 1915 and used his role to serve as a peacekeeper during the strike. The progressive Republican won office because of his ability to cross cultural and religious lines to connect with Grand Rapids’ different communities, notably Polish immigrants. During the strike, he worked to maintain negotiations between the two sides and was both a common sight and a calming influence among the picketers. Ellis considered himself a “man of the people” and campaigned on limiting the economic and political influence of the elite, earning him the trust of many segments of the city. During the infamous May 15 riot, one striker was quoted saying, “We’ll believe Ellis anytime, but we won’t let these ‘coppers’ come around here bossing us.” 

REV. ALFRED WISHART

Ellis was the local leader of the people, Rev. Alfred Wishart was his counterpart urging employees back to work. Wishart moved to Grand Rapids in 1906, brought in to lead Fountain Street Church. It should be noted that William Gay, the head of Berkey & Gay Furniture Company, led the committee search for a new pastor. Wishart was publicly known as a conservative preacher and regularly told his parishioners to look to industrial leaders for industrial solutions. Grand Rapids’ furniture companies faced criticism for keeping scrupulous notes on employees and sharing information with their competitors to keep wages low. However, Wishart praised the move, saying it “lessens the evils of competition.”

BISHOP JOSPEH SCHREMBS

Bouncing back to the other side of the coin is Bishop Joseph Schrembs, who only spent a short time in West Michigan but made his name known. Schrembs was named as an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Grand Rapids just months before the start of the strike. He helped lead a movement in the spring to reach a deal and avoid a strike, ultimately falling short. Schrembs believed he was following the church’s official position on social justice, calling for “a balance of economic interests in a capitalist society.” Just months after being assigned to Grand Rapids, he was moved to the new Diocese of Toledo. Historians debate whether furniture barons used their influence to force that decision.

FRANCIS CAMPAU

Francis Campau, the great-nephew of Grand Rapids founding father Louis Campau, was a lawyer that served as the spokesperson for the Furniture Manufacturers Association. He helped craft the organization’s message, accusing Ellis, Schrembs and other “outside agitators” of poisoning the minds’ of Grand Rapids’ furniture workers who had asked for raises to match inflation, shorter workdays and a pay scale that paid them hourly instead of the “piece-rate” system that paid per completed project. The FMA’s argument was that unions would doom the furniture industry and that the only way to save it was for company owners to stand firm and maintain “open shops.”

WILLIAM MCFARLANE

William McFarlane was a national organizer for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners who was sent to Grand Rapids to help the strikers build its union. He served as a spokesperson for the strikers, often speaking to reporters and shaping their message. McFarlane believed that “organized bargaining” benefited all parties and provided evidence against the FMA’s doom-and-gloom stance that unions would kill the local furniture industry.

HARRY WIDDICOMB

There were several company leaders that had a say in the FMA’s movement and handling of the strike, but none stick out quite like Harry Widdicomb. Harry took over the John Widdicomb Company after his father passed away in 1910. He drew the strongest ire from strikers because of his dismissive behavior. Widdicomb brought in scab workers to keep his factory running during the strike, even shuttling them to and from the factory in his car. He would often denigrate the strikers and even waved a gun at them outside of his factory. To no surprise, his factory on Seward saw the brunt of the damage when things turned violent.

SHERIFF WILLIAM J. HURLEY

William Hurley was the sheriff of Kent County during the 1911 strike. Hurley didn’t formally take a side in the strike but refused to let his deputies get dragged into the fight. After some minor skirmishes, company owners admonished Hurley when he refused to issue permits and allow them to bring in private armed security forces. After the May 15 riot, the most violent night of the strike, Mayor Ellis used his authority to develop a supplemental police force informally called the “peace patrol.” Most historians consider it an act of genius that kept the strike mostly peaceful. Approximately 100 strikers were deputized by the city to help maintain the peace in exchange for a small wage. In addition to keeping the peace, it also gave some strikers more supplemental income to apply more pressure to the company owners.

*Editor’s Note: This article is the beginning of a series looking at the 1911 strike. The following articles will be posted on woodtv.com in the coming days and weeks.

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