The Role of Religion in the 1911 Grand Rapids Furniture Workers’ Strike

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The furniture workers’ strike of 1911 in Grand Rapids will be known by the number of lines drawn in the sand. It was not simply a fight between haves and have-nots or between lower and middle class workers against the property elite. It was also a fight with distinct lines among workers, including religion and ethnicity.

One of the factors that helped the furniture industry flourish in Grand Rapids was its cheap labor. After the American Civil War, the city’s population exploded with European immigrants looking for a fresh start. From 1865 to 1910, the population of Grand Rapids grew from 15,000 to 110,000.

The largest groups of immigrants were from the Netherlands and Poland, but Grand Rapids also saw several German, Lithuanian, and Scandinavian families.

When they left their country of origin, immigrants brought with them their customs and traditions, including their religious beliefs. But labor historian Jeffrey Kleiman said the dividing lines go deeper than just Protestant or Catholic.

“Catholics are divided on the basis of ethnicity. Germans and Poles did not like each other in Europe. That doesn’t mean they liked each other in the United States,” Kleiman told News 8. “If you look at the housing patterns, the Poles are far from the Germans. (They wanted) a Polish parish. They didn’t want to go to a German parish.

The collapse had even more dividing lines for Protestants.

Although there was no legal precedent for neighborhood segregation, the people of Grand Rapids essentially did it on their own. By the early 20th century, immigrants had claimed parts of the city as their own. That’s why the west side of Grand Rapids has such a distinct Polish history, dominating most of the land between Bridge and Leonard streets and from the Grand River to Valley Avenue.

The Dutch pockets were smaller and more extensive, including the northwest neighborhood north of Leonard Street, much of the northeast side and southeast side between Madison and Fuller Avenues, and Wealthy and Franklin Streets.

According to Kleiman, these divisions between the communities were the main difference between banding together and forming unions and the strike ultimately failed without a new agreement.

“You take an already fragile alliance and break it. … The two Calvinist groups said, ‘Well, we’re going to work with the Poles because we have to. We will demand it and get paid extra if we have to work with the Poles. But you know, they go to hell. We don’t have to worry about that,” Kleiman said. “But (Dutch Calvinists) didn’t like Methodists and Baptists because they’re Protestant and they should know better.”

At the time of the strike, the workers were united in their demands but not in their group identity.

Prior to serving as Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Joseph Schrembs held several positions at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. St. Mary’s was founded in 1857 and still stands at the corner of First Street and Turner Avenue on the northwest side of town. (Matt Jaworowski/WOOD TV8)

WISHART VS. SCHREMBS

There were also clear lines of demarcation between key local church leaders.

Joseph Schrembs had held several positions around Grand Rapids, including as senior pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Grand Rapids. He was appointed auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Grand Rapids in January 1911, just as tensions and strike rumors were beginning to mount. Schrembs was considered a pro-Labour bishop, an absolute rarity.

Bishop Joseph Schrembs (Courtesy of Grand Rapids Public Library Archives)

In a 2010 interview with Jeff Smith of the Grand Rapids People’s History Project, labor historian Michael Johnston argues that Schrembs was one of two labor-friendly Catholic bishops in world history, the other being Francis Haas, who also served in the Diocese of Grand Rapids.

According to Kleiman’s book, “Strike: How the Furniture Workers Strike of 1911 Changed Grand Rapids”, Schrembs believed that the position of the Roman Catholic Church aligned more with the workers than with the furniture barons – “that the consolidation of labor was a fair response to the concentration of capital.

Schrembs entered the fray, leading the fight to avoid a strike and find a fair deal between workers and companies without a real work stoppage. Days after thousands of workers voted almost unanimously to strike, Schrembs and other city leaders convinced the owners of the furniture company and their organization – the Furniture Manufacturers Association furniture – to set up a committee to hear the workers and investigate the merits of their demands.

Rev. Alfred Wishart (Courtesy of Grand Rapids Public Library Archives)

Joining Schrembs on the committee was his counterpart, the Reverend Alfred Wishart. He was hired in 1906 to take over as pastor of Fountain Street Baptist Church, selected by a committee that included Robert Irwin, of Irwin Seating. He was a firm but conservative supporter of the social gospel, encouraging his parishioners not only to be worldly, but to influence the world around them for the greater good. He also happened to be pro-industry and got along well with the owners of the company, often preaching that the public should “look to industry leaders for industry solutions”.

In “Strike,” Kleiman quoted Wishart as saying, “The working class is feverish, restless, advancing by strange standards, inspired by ideals, and ruled by men outside the church to whom many of them are indifferent or hostile. .”

It seemed the only thing Schrembs and Wishart agreed on was that a work stoppage should be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, the work of the committee failed.

On April 18, 1911, the FMA issued a statement indicating that the owners would not enter into any discussions with the workers about a collective agreement. The next day, thousands of workers walked off the job.

The Reverend Alfred Wishart led Fountain Street Baptist Church from 1906 until his death in 1933. The church, which dropped Baptist from its name in 1960, celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2019. (Matt Jaworowski/WOOD TV8)

THE DECISIVE BLOW

The strike itself lasted about four months, with the two sides trading blows in the press and, in a few select cases, in the streets outside furniture factories.

Four unions provided support to workers to help them through the strike, but by August the funds had run out and many strikers had accepted the loss and returned to work.

On August 9, the Christian Reformed Church gave the final blow to end the fight. With many of the strikers already gone, the church issued an edict stating that church members would not be allowed to join a union. The decree emptied what was left of the labor movement. With many of their Dutch brethren crossing the lines, the strikers knew the fight was over. By August 19, the remaining strikers had voted to end their blockade and returned to work.

Wishart went on to serve another two decades as the leader of the Fountain Street Church, serving as pastor until his death in 1933.

Just weeks after the strike ended and months after being promoted to auxiliary bishop, Schrembs was promoted again, this time to serve as bishop of the new Diocese of Toledo in Ohio. Although there is no clear evidence that his role in the strike prompted the move, many historians believe that the strong influence of local furniture barons played some role.

*Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on the 1911 strike. The series will continue on woodtv.com in the days and weeks to come.

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