Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950

Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950

by Rosemary Feurer
Pub. Date:
University of Illinois Press


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Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950

In Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950 Rosemary Feurer examines the fierce battles between Midwestern electrical workers and bitterly anti-union electrical and metal industry companies during the 1930s and 40s. Organized as District 8 of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE) and led by open Communist William Sentner, workers developed a style of unionism designed to confront corporate power and to be a force for social transformation in their community and nation.

Feurer studies District 8 through a long lens, establishing early twentieth century contexts for these conflicts. Exploring the role of radicals in local movement formation, Feurer argues for a "civic" unionism that could connect community and union concerns to build solidarity and contest the political economy. District 8's spirited unionism included plant occupations in St. Louis and Iowa, campaigns to democratize economic planning, and local strategies for national bargaining that were depicted as a Communist conspiracy by a corporate influenced Congressional committee in Evansville, Indiana. District 8 was destroyed through reactionary networks and the anti-Communist backlash of the mid-twentieth century, but Feurer argues that its history tells another side of the labor movement’s formation in the 1930s and ‘40s, and can inform current struggles against corporate power in the modern global economy.  

A website with more photographs and documents is available at www.radicalunionism.niu.edu 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252073199
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 10/09/2006
Series: The Working Class in American History Series
Edition description: 1ST
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Rosemary Feurer is an associate professor of history at Northern Illinois University.  She is author of Remember Virdon, 1898.

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Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950



Copyright © 2006 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-07319-3

Chapter One

The Militant Minority in the St. Louis Electrical Industry and the Political Economy of Control, 1900-1935

From 1900 to 1935, electrical employers, acting collectively and ideologically at the local level, eradicated the radical impulses of metal trades workers in St. Louis. Their efforts helped to secure a place for their companies, which became known as "independents," in the electrical industry, an industry dominated by large companies such as General Electric (GE) and Westinghouse. The independent electrical managers worked together with businessmen in other industries to establish a regional labor market based on low wages that would allow them to exist in the political economy of uneven capitalist development. This story frames the background to the opening battles of the 1930s.

St. Louis electrical employers organized as part of a "militant minority" of antiunion businessmen who relied on an agenda of local strategies to secure the open shop and their position in the industry. The term "militant minority" is borrowed from twentieth-century syndicalists who used it to describe "the men and women who endeavored to weldtheir workmates and neighbors into a self-aware and purposeful working class." The term is also useful to conceptualize the group of businessmen who urged fellow managers and owners to act collectively to control the labor market and to eliminate radical influences among workers. Other studies have shown that employers won control of regional labor markets only through tremendous collective action and ideological drives against labor. Interestingly, small- and medium-sized employers often played a decisive role in organizing the urban landscape of unevenly developing capitalism to stave off labor's demands. The narrative that follows allows us to see that as the electrical independents acted to establish patterns of dominance, shop floor control tactics were finely interwoven with the local political economy of control, which describes the broader means of controlling labor beyond the internal plant-based programs, such as welfare and personnel programs. The local business strategies were clearly geared toward controlling the larger spatial arena of the labor market, such as the community wage that businesses in St. Louis struggled to define and that workers negotiated daily.

The St. Louis Electrical Industry

Between 1890 and 1930, St. Louis emerged as a center of the electrical industry independents, small- and medium-sized companies that were on the margins of the highly concentrated electrical products markets. GE and Westinghouse, headquartered in New York City and Schenectady, respectively, controlled the production of large generators, turbines, and huge motors, the core products of the industry, as well as some of the key manufacturing components such as copper. Wagner, Emerson, and Century, companies that came to be known by the 1930s as the "big three" of the St. Louis independents, carved out a niche in smaller motor and electrical products. They owed that success to their ability to maintain staunch antiunion policies throughout the region's labor market.

Closely tied to the St. Louis financial elite, Wagner Electric organized the local open shop drive until the 1920s. Herbert Wagner came to St. Louis in 1887 to set up a power plant turbine for Westinghouse. In 1890, bankrolled by "old money" financiers of the dry goods and warehouse industry, Wagner and engineer Francis Schwedtman founded Wagner Electric. August Samuel, the director of the city's largest bank, became president of Wagner Electric in 1900, but Schwedtman was connected to National City Bank of New York.

Wagner Electric's first products were single-phase, alternating current motors used to power small appliances; the company also patented a range of electrical products, including transformers. Wagner expanded from a small shop in downtown St. Louis to a burgeoning local enterprise with national market outlets. By 1913, its Wellston plant in St. Louis's northwest industrial corridor was proclaimed the third largest and the most modern in the country. Wagner engineers also developed electrical components for automobiles, eventually producing generators, starters, and ignition and lighting devices. The company was one of the largest employers in St. Louis's diverse manufacturing base, growing to forty-five hundred workers thanks to war production contracts during World War I.

By the 1920s, Emerson Electric and Century Electric had joined Wagner to form the "big three" of the independents, but they were much smaller enterprises until World War I. Emerson Electric was established in 1890 by brothers Charles and Alexander Meston, leaders in motor development. In 1892, railroad magnate Herbert Parker bought controlling interest in a partnership with the Mestons. Parker was president and then general manager until 1920. Emerson started as a producer of fractional horsepower alternating current motors, but by the 1920s, with almost twenty-five hundred employees, it was "one of the largest manufacturing plants making electric fans in the U.S." Fans remained its most important consumer product line until World War II. Emerson remained in St. Louis's downtown manufacturing corridor, in the area around its main plant facility.

Two former Wagner and Emerson managers who patented repulsion type motors, a major innovation used to power small factories, founded Century Electric in 1902. Century's engineers developed innovations in smaller-size direct current motors that facilitated the initial development of many household appliances. The company also had a line of ceiling fans by 1911 and the first successful automatic electric refrigerator motors in the 1920s. Along with Wagner, it produced motors built to specification for factories, from St. Louis to China. After 1914, the company operated out of several multistory facilities in the vicinity of 19th and Pine in the downtown business corridor, a short walk from Emerson's main plant. Its workforce reached more than two thousand in the late 1920s.

The experience of these three companies illustrates that despite the ongoing consolidation of the industry and the huge research laboratories of GE and Westinghouse, smaller companies and entrepreneurs could carve out a role in the electrical industry. Several small-niche electrical and machine producers grew in the diverse St. Louis economy. Moloney Electric by the 1920s employed more than fifteen hundred workers to produce transformers, but others, such as Superior Electric and Baldor Electric, employed one hundred or fewer workers. Some speculated that GE and Westinghouse allowed such companies to survive because they served a useful purpose-an excuse to keep workers' wages lower. By the late 1920s, there evolved a gentlemen's agreement: as long as the smaller companies did not compete on price-that is, undercut the price of the products that competed with GE and Westinghouse-their existence would not be contested. The larger independents even had an international trade, as St. Louis businessmen pushed to create markets, especially in Latin America, for their surplus products. Emerson and Century ceiling fans graced the dining halls and offices of many Latin American cities.

At the turn of the century, metal trades employers such as the electrical manufacturers depended on skilled workers, many of them members of craft unions who had won some control over their trade; the skilled workers lodge of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) claimed to have organized 98 percent of the trade by 1900. Many smaller companies simply conceded to the various metal trades' union shop rules (such as restrictions on operating more than one machine at a time and insistence on union control over the payment plan) and hired from the craft union's ranks under its apprenticeship rules, which limited the supply of skilled workers and thus the flexibility of the companies to utilize the labor market at will. Emerson refused to recognize the union, but its "policy was to pay [the] current scale" of the crafts. Wagner Electric placed itself out front in the battle against these restrictions; in 1898 it withstood a boycott by several crafts unions over the company's refusal to abide by union shop rules. As a result, it found its supply of skilled labor limited.

St. Louis electrical independents developed control over the labor market through the Metal Trades Association (MTA) of St. Louis. Wagner Electric managers were the main organizers of the MTA and remained the driving force until the 1920s. F. C. Schwedtman, Wagner's general superintendent, headed the MTA from 1899 until 1913, when Waldo Layman, Wagner's new president, succeeded him. The MTA was affiliated with the National Metal Trades Association (NMTA), which Layman led as president from 1913 to 1914.

In 1904, the MTA began the open shop drive in the local metal trades industry. By the 1920s, they won the contest. The open shop drive, a response to developments within the local labor movement, reached beyond shop floor control issues and was made in concert with employers outside the metal trades. To understand the MTA perspective, we need to look at the broad challenge that the St. Louis labor movement posed to business during this period. To the local leaders of the MTA, the workers' movement had radical implications that could only be met by a grand collective local drive for control.

St. Louis Labor's Challenge to Business Control

In the years between the turn of the century and World War I, the St. Louis labor movement seemed poised to transcend the organizational limitations of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), to be more reflective of the entire working-class community, and to present a broad challenge to business at the community level. The ascendancy of the AFL, organized around craft-based unionism, was counterbalanced by networks of activists, many of them socialists, who continued to agitate to reshape the AFL at the local level. Some of these activists had experienced the tumult of the 1877 general strike, when workers had organized effectively, if momentarily, on a community basis. Many activists also carried the perspective of the Knights of Labor into the AFL. Organized on an inclusive, community-wide basis, the Knights of Labor saw themselves as much an egalitarian citizens' reform effort as a workplace-based organization. Systematic repression organized by employers' associations spelled decline for the Knights of Labor and brought about the AFL, organized with more limited goals of craft unionism. But the most influential unions over the next generation in the local St. Louis Central Trades and Labor Union (CTLU), the citywide central body of the AFL unions, were those that originated with the Knights of Labor and carried forward some of its ideals. One, the Brewery Workers Union (BWU), became the largest and strongest local union in St. Louis. Its members and leaders included many Socialists, and it was the most influential local advocate of industrial unionism, that is, organizing all workers within the industry, not just the crafts. Strong links between labor and radicals also advocated powerfully for inclusivity in an organizational apparatus founded on exclusivity. The German immigrant community provided the main base for leftist politics and unionism. Socialists were influential in St. Louis trade unions, and some were leaders of the CTLU, advocating a form of industrial unionism within the AFL's structure. The BWU modeled such an industrial unionism structure in the local breweries by 1910 after engaging in jurisdictional battles with local and national unions.

The Federated Metal Trades Council of St. Louis and Vicinity (FMTC) represented another model, the attempt to bring together craft unions in order to set up shop committees to bargain with employers across crafts and to include the unskilled. St. Louis had been the headquarters of radical anarchist metal trades unionism in 1886. The International Progressive Machinists' Union, which split with the IAM when the IAM set up a color bar, continued to agitate in St. Louis in the 1890s, and though it folded after originally being part of the FMTC, its effects were still felt into the early 1900s. In 1900, the FMTC offices were not only union headquarters but also a center of activity for socialists and anarchosyndicalists who debated strategies for achieving social justice. Workers entering there might just as well encounter a Socialist meeting as a union meeting. Activists had begun encouraging a movement to organize less-skilled workers and to include them within the FMTC. The Amalgamated Metal Mechanics, a union of unskilled and semiskilled workers, was booming, and the Foundry Workers International Union, led by Socialist George Bechtold, set up offices in the FMTC building to recruit unskilled foundry laborers, including black workers. (The workforce of the electrical companies was almost exclusively white, so such developments profoundly countered the exclusive tendencies of AFL unions such as the IAM, which was the main union in the electrical and metal trades industry.) By 1900, shop committees composed of workers from the different trades were functioning in many St. Louis metal trades shops. These shop committees sought to address the kinds of conditions that shocked observers such as Frank O'Hare, whose commitment to socialism grew when he encountered St. Louis metal trades workers in 1901: "To say I was appalled is putting it mildly. I never knew before how and under what conditions the working people of St. Louis worked," where even unionized metal polishers died from inhaling dust and those without unions were fodder for a gristmill of unsafe conditions and poverty. As these men gathered in this milieu, they sparked the idea of a community-based drive to contest the boundaries of the labor market.

In March 1900, the FMTC issued a call to workers in the electrical and metal trades of St. Louis to launch a local drive for a minimum wage and a nine-hour workday. A circular signed by representatives of machinists, brass workers, pattern makers, molders, and core workers argued that the limits to craft organization were being revealed, given the "tendency of modern methods to specialize all trades and tradesmen," to the extent that the "'all around' mechanic is fast disappearing." They argued that it was actually ironic and supremely unjust that employers paid the "specialist" (less-skilled worker) less than the "all-around mechanic" on the grounds that "the specialist is not worth as much as the 'all around' man," when, in fact, "measured by his product" and the "steadier work" he performed, the specialist is "worth more than the average 'all around' man." The employers only paid the all-around mechanic more, the circular asserted, to "arouse craft pride, and prevent a combination of both for their mutual benefit." The activists viewed the craft unions' attempt to organize only the skilled worker as narrow-minded. Noting the local arena of struggle, the appeal urged expanding bonds of solidarity as the basis for broader efforts at control of the labor market, even on the national level. A fight for the minimum wage and a shorter workday in a concerted local drive and in other large cities could open the way for a broader national movement. At the bottom of the circular there was a ballot for workers to vote to join the movement. The ballot was to be returned to the shop committees, operating in defiance of traditional national craft union structures where lines of authority descended from national unions.

The call was indeed adopted by a vote of workers in shop committees and crystallized a moment of possibility and direction within the context of local developments in the St. Louis labor movement as well as nationally. St. Louis workers had been inspired by the call of Chicago metal trades workers for the nine-hour workday, a movement that sparked a national campaign. But the circular was first and foremost the product of the careful development of local solidarities. It was not a coincidence that the circular was issued in the midst of a community-wide drive in support of streetcar workers, whose strike polarized the entire city along class lines and whose target was the key political power in the city. For radicals in the FMTC, it was natural to draw a link between wages and hours and the broader power struggle.


Excerpted from Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950 by ROSEMARY FEURER Copyright © 2006 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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