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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

LABOR - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

LABOR. The concept of a working class, distinct from farmers, small proprietors and professionals, or men of wealth, was of little use in the early years of the city's history; in these years an egalitarianism based on cheap land was reinforced by a relatively equal apportionment of the rigors of frontier life. The origins of many of Cleveland's earliest laborers can be traced to the OHIO AND ERIE CANAL, which was begun in 1825 and immediately generated a demand for unskilled labor. As the first elements of a working class consisting of day laborers emerged, they were viewed with suspicion by their fellow citizens. In 1829 the CLEVELAND HERALD epitomized certain attitudes toward laborers, which continued to be held by many Clevelanders into the 20th century: "laborers are much wanted upon the public works at this place. It is surprising to us why it should be so. At the wages paid for these jobs the young men of this vicinity could buy themselves a snug farm. How many hundreds of men and their families are there in the eastern cities, who live from hand to mouth and drag out a miserable existence, educating their children for servitude, and perhaps the gallows, who, by industry and frugality in Ohio, might in a short time become comparatively able farmers. . . ." Rather than attracting prospective additional farmers to Cleveland, the canal created the commercial and industrial basis for day labor by increasingly large numbers of skilled and unskilled workers. The dependence of the worker on his employer in an inherently unequal relationship and the hostility of other social classes to laborers assured that they would come to view themselves as a distinct group with the need for unique organizations to represent them in the political and economic spheres.

Violence erupts as strikers overturn a vehicle outside the Fisher Body Plant, 1939. Cleveland Press Collection, CSU Archives/Photo by Fred Bottomer.

Unskilled workers, who earned only $3 a week for 60 or more hours of work, were unorganized. Skilled workers, however, had the energy and interest and sufficient economic leverage to form unions. In 1834 journeymen printers formed the Cleveland Typographical Assn. to bargain for improved hours and wages. The union was an auxiliary of the Typographical Auxiliary of Columbus, OH, and the New York Trades Union. Two years later, the carpenters organized a union to bargain with the master builders for a 10-hour day in order to "have time to attend to their domestic affairs." Neither of these organizations survived for any length of time, and with the Panic of 1837, attempts to organize ended for a decade. Cleveland workers did, however, follow the lead of eastern workers by attempting to organize societies of workingmen and mechanics to gain political influence. Despite these attempts, hard money and organized workers were in short supply in 1843, when 350 Cleveland and Ohio City workingmen paraded to protest the return of barter to the local economy. Since the city's population was only slightly over 6,000 in 1840, that was a showing of, considerable strength. The association they formed lasted a little over a year, providing a lyceum with lectures of interest to workingmen. Five years later, an Assn. of United Mechanics again flourished briefly, providing speakers on political topics.

Although an unskilled workingman continued to earn perhaps $4 or $5 a week for 60 or more hours of work during the 1850s, working women earned less. After 15 years of declining wages and payment in "orders" rather than cash, the seamstresses formed the FEMALE PROTECTIVE UNION in 1850 to secure better wages. Of the city's estimated 350 seamstresses (among 17,000 people), 50 formed a cooperative union store to better their lot. Despite these efforts, only 2 years later a seamstress felt compelled to "steal" a coat when her employer refused to pay her. The employer pressed charges, and the woman was brought into court looking "overworked and poorly fed," where a sympathetic judge dismissed the charge and ordered the merchant to pay court costs.

Efforts to organize continued throughout the 1850s; in this decade, workers organized, if only temporarily, in larger numbers and in more trades than ever before. The printers reformed their union in 1852 and went on strike. Sixty men joined a carpenters' union, agreeing to a contribution of $.10 per week to support the union. Employers struck back in 1853 when the white waiters at the prestigious WEDDELL HOUSE struck and were replaced with black waiters. The painters organized and struck unsuccessfully, and 100 shoemakers protested a wage reduction in 1858. In these same years, a Workingmen's Assn. again started, and workers attempted to form a workingmen's party. In the depression of 1857-58, these organizations once again disappeared. The Typographical Union nevertheless was rejuvenated, and in 1863 J. A. Spencer, president of the Cleveland local, hosted the National Typographical Union Convention. The hostility of many Clevelanders to labor organizations continued in these years, and EDWIN COWLES†, editor of the CLEVELAND LEADER, celebrated the demise of the union in 1864. Despite this hostility, workingmen grew increasingly restive. The Typographical Union reformed, receiving its international charter in 1868, which it holds to this day (see TYPOGRAPHICAL WORKERS UNION LOCAL NO. 53). In these same years, the plasterers and the bricklayers organized, and the coopers' union played an especially prominent role in the union movement.

More general associations of workingmen also flourished. In 1868 a Workingmen's Assembly was organized, with 50 delegates from 5 Cleveland wards and several unions. The organization affiliated with the National Labor Congress, and the congress's president, Richard F. Travellick, who espoused political action by workers, soon became a familiar speaker on Cleveland labor podiums. While never a political force, the organization survived, into the 1870s, and many of its principles and members were later adopted by the Knights of Labor. As prosperity returned in the late 1860s, an unprecedented period of labor unrest opened. It began among the coopers in 1867 and was followed by the strike of 400 railroad shopmen in 1868 and a second strike by the coopers in 1869. In 1871 the Cleveland Ninth Circle Telegrapher's Protective League joined in a national strike against Western Union, and the smoldering unrest in the cooperage trade broke into open riot. In this latter case, even the antilabor Leader noted that a reduction in wages from $15 per week to $13.50 provided some justification for the strike when rents in a working-class neighborhood ranged from $15 to $20 a month. A totally different, but equally important, role that the unions played at this time is revealed in the announcements of the iron moulders' picnic at HALTNORTH'S GARDENS in May and the 11th annual Iron Moulders Ball in Nov. 1870; a year later the Moulders raised $135 at their annual ball.

In 1873 the Industrial Council of Cuyahoga County was formed, composed of 10 unions, including Typographical Local 53 and 3 coopers union locals. Robert Schilling was president, and in 1873 the council successfully hosted a week-long convention of the National Industrial Congress in Cleveland. By 1874 they had secured a hall, and discussions were underway to develop a workingmen's newspaper. Many of Cleveland's major craft unions date from these years, a testimony to the permanence of the labor movement in Cleveland after the Civil War. As the recession of 1873-78 deepened, a series of unsuccessful strikes occurred in Cleveland. In 1877, a key year in American labor history, Cleveland's workers continued to suffer from underemployment and low wages. Using Czech, German, and English, members of the coopers union organized a strike at the STANDARD OIL CO. (OHIO) The leaders, some of whom were Czech socialists, called for a citywide strike of all workers earning less than $1 per day and were joined by sewer masons, bricklayers, cigarmakers, and others. After this initial success, the strike disintegrated into violent confrontation when the strikers' wives attacked police, who began clubbing the women and ignited a riot. Three days later, the strike was over, but conservative Clevelanders were outraged and frightened by the call for a general strike. In July, when railroad workers across the nation began one of the most violent strikes in American history, Cleveland employers took a conciliatory approach, and the strike ended locally without significant violence. Despite the lack of violence, many Clevelanders feared for their lives during the railroad strike. Wealthy Clevelanders organized the First City Troop of Light Cavalry (see TROOP A) in 1877, and in June 1878 the CLEVELAND GATLING GUN BATTERY was recruited from the "best circles." In 1879 construction was begun on an armory,, complete with loopholes. In one of those anomalies of Cleveland's history, the building never witnessed a shot fired in anger but was the site for an 1882 meeting of the Federation of Organized Trades & Labor Unions--destined to become the American Federation of Labor.

Cleveland workers continued to strike in spite of these preparations, and with the return of prosperity roughly 70-80% of strikes in Cleveland were successful in the years 1881-86. Rather than use guns and clubs, employers resorted to yellow-dog contracts and blacklists. However, in 1882 a major strike occurred at the Cleveland Rolling Mills. The iron-and-steelworkers succeeded in organizing 80% of the plant's workforce and attempted to raise wages to the level prevailing in other cities. With the cooperation of the city, the company imported Polish and Bohemian immigrants to break the strike. Three years later, the Polish and Bohemian workers struck when their wages were cut, and they secured a restoration of their previous wage. (see CLEVELAND ROLLING MILL STRIKES).

The 1880s were a period of gradual improvement for Cleveland workers. Real wages increased, work was plentiful, and 20% of all Clevelanders owned their own homes. The Knights of Labor, a comprehensive union covering all skilled and unskilled workers, ran candidates for public office, and nearly 50 assemblies were formed in Cleveland as the KNIGHTS OF LABOR DISTRICT ASSEMBLY NO. 47. The present-day carpenters union was organized in 1881 under the Knights' sponsorship. In 1887 the competing AFL chartered a Cleveland Central Labor Union (CLU), the forerunner of today's local AFL-CIO. The CLU was organized by an immigrant German typesetter, ROBERT BANDLOW†, who founded 26 locals between 1887-91. In 1886 MARTIN A. FORAN† of the coopers union was elected to Congress with labor support; he later became a successful judge. Still another sign of the growing strength of labor was the founding of the CLEVELAND CITIZEN in 1891 by MAX S. HAYES† and Henry C. Long. The CLU assisted the fledgling newspaper, which presented trade-union and labor news while espousing a moderate socialism.

By 1900 there were 100 unions in Cleveland: 62 affiliated with the AFL, 14 with the Knights of Labor, and 24 unaffiliated. At the same time, a more radical political movement was offering itself to the American working class--the American Socialist party. Given the overt hostility of capital to labor organizations and the harsh conditions of labor in 1900, one might expect a successful socialist movement--the opposite was true. During the first half of the 20th century, American workers would embrace trade unions while supporting the Republican and Democratic parties. A major factor mitigating the influence of socialism was the continued general prosperity of the working class. By 1900 40% of Clevelanders owned their own, homes, as opposed to 20% in 1880. In 1900 10,000 men were employed in the building trades, more than a twofold increase over 1880. And new generations of workers' homes came equipped with electricity and indoor plumbing. Growth in unions slowed after 1904 in the face of hostile courts, continued immigration, and heightened employer opposition. The percentage of organized workers decreased as steel, petroleum, and other heavy industries expanded, creating large numbers of unskilled and semiskilled positions. Only during the war years 1917-18 did large numbers of workers join unions. During this brief period, which foreshadowed the growth of unions in the 1930s, immigration ceased, labor was scarce, and government policy favored unions. For black workers, who came to Cleveland in large numbers during the war to fill the gap created when immigration from Europe ended, union membership was especially a rarity, for, despite the central labor unions' endorsement of efforts to organize black workers, few blacks (see AFRICAN AMERICANS) were ever accepted into craft unions.

Before World War I, over 6,000 Cleveland women were involved in the GARMENT WORKERS' STRIKE OF 1911. With the coming of the war, the trend to hire women in industry accelerated, but they remained unorganized and when the war ended most lost their jobs (see CONDUCTORS' STRIKE OF 1918-1919). With the organization of the Cleveland-based CONSUMERS LEAGUE OF OHIO, attention came to be focused on working women. As women entered factories and other nontraditional areas, the percentage of women in the workforce rose from 15 in 1890 to 18 in 1920. By 1919 the Consumers League had developed a legislative program to protect working women. Portions of this program were enacted in the 1930s and remained in effect until protective legislation for women fell into disfavor in the 1970s.

By 1920 organized labor in Cleveland was more concerned about maintaining existing unions than about organizing new workers. Attempts to unionize the steel industry had failed in 1919 and the newly founded American Plan Assn. aggressively promoted the open shop, importing strikebreakers and labor spies as needed. The dominant experience of most workers in the 1920s, however, was prosperity. In Ohio, real wages rose from $672 annually in 1920 to $834 in 1929. The sacrifices of earlier generations bore fruit in a shift of emphasis from capital goods to consumer goods--which included housing, home appliances, leisure-time activities, and above all, the automobile. Black Americans did not benefit to the same extent from the increased prosperity. Many were new migrants to the urban environment and lacked the necessary skills and education to compete for jobs. More important, they met with a perverse and extensive discrimination on the part of employers and unions, which relegated most of them to the expanding ghetto on Cleveland's east side. Nevertheless, the most gifted, of these migrants and many of the city's established black residents benefited from the prosperity of the 1920s; extensive black homeownership in MOUNT PLEASANT and GLENVILLE dates from this era.

Perhaps the most important trend was the growing emergence of a class of workers who shared a sense of common goals which transcended the religious and ethnic identities that had been so important in earlier years. This common identity was the basis for the political realignment of the New Deal and the successful organization of mass-production industries in the 1930s. The character of a generation of working Americans was shaped by the severe economic hardship of the 1930s--the years in which they joined together to change the role of unions in the workplace. This depression-borne change came at a great price. A 1931 survey in Cleveland revealed that of the 234 families in a working-class neighborhood, 45 had no means of support, and 22 literally lived on garbage. A few depended on theft or PROSTITUTION, others on relatives, a working wife (at wages too low to support a family), or the earnings of children. Those who continued to work successfully organized the mass-production industries. In Cleveland, the most important strike was the FISHER BODY DIVISION OF GENERAL MOTORS CORP. plant sit-down in Dec. 1936, which served as the catalyst for the historic sit-down strike at General Motors in Flint, MI. As the great mass-production industries were unionized, the Cleveland labor movement split into rival AFL and CIO factions--a split that lasted until they reunited in 1958. (see CLEVELAND INDUSTRIAL UNION COUNCIL and CLEVELAND FEDERATION OF LABOR). The other great strike of these years, the LITTLE STEEL STRIKE OF 1937, was marked in Cleveland by an assault of strikebreakers and company police upon the steelworkers' soup kitchen and headquarters. Armed primarily with clubs, they beat men and hurled women out the windows of the building. In the early 1940s, the companies, including Cleveland's REPUBLIC STEEL CORP., lost a series of court decisions and were forced to recognize the union and to pay damages to workers injured in the assault.

The gains of the 1930s were consolidated and broadened during World War II and the following years. Above all, the lines between workers and the middle class continued to blur as pensions, health-care packages, paid vacations, reduced hours, and higher pay brought workers a lifestyle similar to that of other Americans. Their children often attended college, and they moved to new homes in the SUBURBS. The primary thrust of labor reform movements now came on behalf of minorities and women, who, in large part, simply wanted a fair share of what others were already receiving. The success of the labor movement in the postwar years brought a new sense of participation by all, workers in the life of the city. Unions began to play a significant role in the community and welfare organizations.

The position of Cleveland's workers, however, began to erode as local industry moved away from the area in the 1970s and 1980s, and the shift to a service economy reduced wages and employment. The unions had limited success in retaining industry simply by accepting lower wages--many of the changes were beyond their control. The organized labor movement of the 1980s has been strong enough to support and even finance programs for the unorganized and unemployed worker, however the decline in the local industrial base has weakened the once-powerful UNITED AUTO WORKERS and UNITED STEEL WORKERS OF AMERICA. As a result, the role played by workers in service-oriented industries and the role of unions like the Communications Workers of America and white-collar unions such as the American Federation of Teachers has increased correspondingly.

Dennis I. Harrison

Case Western Reserve Univ.


Last Modified: 27 Mar 1998 10:41:21 AM

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