Chapter 21 : Pageant of Victory
PROTESTS AGAINST the picket chanties and tents, which had shut off street-car traffic in the vicinity of the Goodyear works, brought about a conference between city officials and the strike committee. As a result, it was arranged that the city would supply gasoline for automobiles to be used by the pickets as shelters.
But the promise of gas was not kept, and without warning Mayor Schroy sent 75 policemen and 30 street cleaners with trucks on the morning of March 7 to tear down the chanties. They didn't get far. After wrecking four shacks, they were beaten back by massed pickets. At the first telephoned alarm, more than 300 union workers in the General Tire and Rubber plant stopped work and sped to the rescue. Hundreds of Goodrich and Firestone men also came running. When the cops quit the scene, the demolished shelters were promptly rebuilt.
With this triumph confirming the strength and unity of the strikers, the negotiating committee strained again for concessions. They got a few; not enough for settlement purposes, but sufficient to serve as a basis for discussion at the next mass meeting in the Armory on Saturday, March 14.
Of the five points in the new terms offered by Goodyear, the meeting voted to accept two, but rejected the rest. Singing lustily: No, no, a thousand times no, I'd rather be dead than a scab, the strikers sent the negotiating committee back to the management. The leadership was given a vote of confidence, the strikers' ranks were reinforced by many new unionists, and they left the Armory determined to stay on the picket lines until victory was complete.
While the conferees were deadlocked, I took time out to spend a few days in New York, attending a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the ILGWU's Local 1. President Dubinsky listened carefully to my report on Akron, then advised me to go back and remain as long as I was needed. Stopping off at our Buffalo office, I found a wire:
"Vigilante committee formed to open plant. No date set. Company seeking new injunction. Everybody hopes you return."
I took the next train to Akron, telegraphing ahead.
Ex-Mayor C. Nelson Sparks, who had been defeated for reelection, was organizing what he called the Akron Law and Order League. He boasted that it had gained 30,000 members in three days; alleged over the air that the union was "bringing in gas and fire-arms to create a reign of terror"; and proposed to "run these outside agitators out of town." The vigilantes could be seen drilling back of the Mayflower Hotel.
By this time the headquarters of both sides were armed camps. Most of those who came into the lobby of the Hotel Portage, apart from the newspaper men, fell into two classes÷spies from the Law and Order League, and union guards, who chose seats close to the spies. We, too, had observers sitting in the lobby of the Mayflower, where President Litchfield and his yes-men were quartered.
Now there were new and persistent reports that Pearl Bergoff's "army" of roughnecks was about to descend upon Akron. In line with the Mohawk Valley formula for breaking strikes, they would be brought in as "workers" leading workers hack to work.1 The situation was full of dynamite.
War veterans in the unions had been asked by the strike leaders to help protect the pickets. They responded quickly and began drilling in their union halls. Wilmer Tate, head of the CLU, assailed Sparks, stamped the Law and Order League as "un-American and Fascist," and said that "if blood should be spilled in this strike, the people of Akron will know on whose conscience the responsibility for violence must finally rest."
"Never," said Tate, "have I heard a more direct incitement to lawlessness than that uttered today by ex-Mayor Sparks.... There is talk of lynching parties and ganging-up buzzing around the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel."
"NO ROOM FOR VIGILANTES!" was the banner on a frontpage editorial in the Beacon-Journal.
"The most ominous note yet sounded in the Goodyear strike," it declared, "is the call for recruits to a 'Law and Order League.' . . . Resort to organization of a 'citizens' vigilante' [sic] to open the Goodyear plants is an open invitation to rioting and violence.... If the Law and Order League does not at once abandon its stupid and dangerous program, then Akron can prepare itself for a bath of blood."
Sparks announced that his vigilantes would break up the picketlines and force the reopening of the Goodyear works÷he would give instructions for the attack over the local radio station. Reports that the onslaught would be made early on Tuesday, March 17, came to strike headquarters the day before.
On Monday, around 5 :30, Frank Grillo, URW secretary-treasurer, walked into the press room, and told McAlister Coleman: "I've just bought the radio station for the whole night for $500÷and it's up to you to put on a program. We start in half an hour."
Coleman phoned strike headquarters and asked that all available musical talent be rounded up, grabbed his portable typewriter, and hurried over to the station. There he did more phoning, for speakers, and began turning out copy faster than he ever had to to make an edition.
At 6, Grillo went on the air, telling of the expected attack.
"Don't turn your radio off," he urged all union members and the Akron public. "This will be an all-night broadcast."
He asked every man to be ready to reinforce the pickets in case of need. In answer hundreds hurried to the strike area despite the bitter cold.
Over the air union officials talked on the need for organization, and illuminating portions of Edward Levinson's hook about Bergoff's technique, I Break Strikes, were read, interspersed by music, supplied by crooners, barber-shop quartets, and players of ukuleles, harmonicas, bazookas, and accordions.
A highlight of the presentation was a skit akin to the Fanny BriceBaby Brice-Baby radio feature, written by Mac Coleman. He impersonated little Fanny Fink, daughter of a professional strike-breaker, who was played by Grillo. Papa Fink, coming home all worn out from throwing stones through "loyal" workers' windows, was welcomed by Baby Fink. She began asking innocent questions, and in answering them Papa kept getting into difficulties. What did Papa do for a living? He was an "industrial counselor," he said.
"Where is that nice gentleman who was talking with you here last night ?"
"The one you called Hophead Cohen."2
Papa instructed his daughter what to say if the police should come.
"If they ask you if you saw the strikers have any guns, you tell 'em yes."
"Oh, but Papa, those wasn't guns. Those was the empty beer bottles you left."
In the heavily guarded radio station the improvised program went on and on. The night passed, and there was no attack. Apparently the Law and Order League knew how stoutly the union was prepared to resist and got cold feet. At 8 in the morning, Frank Grillo went on the air again, reporting all quiet at the Goodyear gates.
That broadcast was the longest in labor history. It was the first time labor had used the radio as both an offensive and defensive weapon in a large-scale strike.
After a busy day in strike headquarters on Friday, March 20, I returned to the Portage Hotel to learn that a tentative agreement with the Goodyear company had at last been reached. Though it was admittedly "the best yet;" some of the strike committee members were apprehensive that it, too, would be turned down by the rank-and-file.
I took a copy from Leo Krzycki, and began reading. As I went along I became elated.
"Why, gentlemen," I said, when I finished, "you couldn't hope for a better contract to offer your people. This is a union agreement, minus the closed-shop clause. I see no danger of its being voted down."
Seven points were dealt with in the new proposal:
An oral understanding between the attorneys for the company and the union covered other points:
One omission in this contract gave the strikers a distinct advantage, the committee could see. It lacked the usual provision against strikes and lockouts. After five weeks on the picket-lines, the strikers would go back to their jobs educated and disciplined, well versed in union rules, and confident in the knowledge that they had a solid organization behind them.
Not knowing what lay ahead, the management would provoke the union members into stoppages and sit-downs. Then the company would call on the union officials for an accounting, and they would answer that they couldn't do anything about it because there was no provision in the contract excluding sit-downs. After these stoppages became a nuisance, the company would be tickled pink to grant a closed shop to avoid work interruption, and let the union take all the trouble off its hands.
And I predicted that after Goodyear realized that it was dealing with an organized group and a responsible leadership, the company would see to it that the whole rubber industry had a closed shop. That had been our experience in the ladies' garment industry; some employers who had been viciously anti-union had later virtually acted as organizers for us.
The committee members began to perk up, and their confidence was further increased when Germer, Krzycki, and Hapgood agreed with me, telling of their own trials in obtaining collective agreements for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the United Mine Workers.
It was decided to call the key men among the rank-and-file together that evening and explain why this contract was the best obtainable under the circumstances, and why it should be approved. They would spread the word to as many strikers as possible in advance of next day's mass meeting. Grillo was to have the proposal mimeographed.
Taking a copy of the agreement with me, I started for my own room to study it further.
Through the open door of a room near by I saw Powers Hapgood talking with two other men. They hailed me. I recognized one of them as Louis F. Budenz, then labor editor of the Communist Daily Worker in New York.
"We want to know," I heard them ask Powers, "what kind of an. agreement you are presenting to the strikers."
"And who in hell is we?" I interposed.
The two men looked startled. "Why, the Communist Party!"
"This is Jim Keller, C.P. organizer for Akron," Budenz added.
"We are submitting an excellent agreement," I told them, "the best that could possibly be wrested from the company. My advice to you both is to lay off this strike and let us settle it in our own way."
"Why are you so belligerent?" Keller asked.
"Because you have no business here. What is more," and I turned to Budenz, "you will remember, Louis, when you and I tried to settle the Westchester County pick and shovel strike in 1931, and the Communists threw a monkey-wrench into what we were doing. You were belligerent then, before you were a party member, because you didn't like their interference."
He mumbled something in reply and asked to see a copy of the agreement.
"You'll get a copy when it's given out at the Armory tomorrow afternoon, the same as the rest."
A. J. Muste, dean of Brookwood Labor College when I was a student there, also had come to Akron to survey the strike situation. B. J. Widick, reporter for the Akron Beacon-Journal, and I went to meet him in a restaurant.
Again the question: "What kind of an agreement÷?"
"A.J.", I answered, "you trained us at Brookwood to organize the mass production workers. You laid stress on both the practical and ethical sides. And you never let us forget that when strikes are settled, they must be settled honorably. I won't fail your teaching now."
Powers Hapgood and I made the rounds with the strike committee that evening, talking with the pickets. We urged them to attend the Armory meeting, explaining that the committee had got what we considered the best possible proposal, and that it was up to the strikers to return to work and show the rest of the rubber workers the solidarity of their union.
Among the outstanding rank-and-file men whose word carried weight were Bill Carny and E. L. Howard. Carny later became New Jersey regional director for the CIO, and died of a heart attack just before its 1940 convention in Atlantic City.
We told them of experiences in our own industries; dwelt upon how long it took to build a real union; argued that it couldn't be done with a single strike. A long strike seldom won better conditions, but was apt to peter out without result. The rubber workers had won the admiration and respect of the whole labor movement and the Akron public for courage, stamina, and cool-headedness. Accepting the pending proposals would put them in a strategically advantageous position.
"Did your union ever have such an agreement?" Carny asked.
"Yes," I said, "but in Los Angeles we didn't have nearly so much to start with as you're being offered."
"Well, I guess if it was good enough for the garment workers," Carny commented, "it will be good enough for the rubber workers."
After visiting all the posts, talking fast at each, we went on to the Armory. By one o'clock it was jammed.
Overnight copies of a crude anonymous leaflet had been widely circulated. It denounced the union leadership; stamped the tentative contract as a "betrayal agreement"; and called upon the strikers to "raise hell" at the Armory meeting and boo and shout down any officer who spoke for the proposal.
Immediately after the session began Tommy Burns read the text of that scurrilous circular, and served notice that if any one followed the instructions therein he would be giving evidence that he was acting for some disruptive agency that was trying to prolong the conflict. His warning was effective. Authorship of the leaflet was never traced.
With great shouts the meeting voted to approve the new proposals. If there was any dissent it was lost in the din of enthusiasm. The strikers would go back to work Monday.
Adjourning, the throng in the Armory, plus thousands who had been unable to get in, began a spontaneous march through the business district, heading for strike headquarters. Their joy was unbounded. Not since Armistice Day in 1918 had there been such jubilation in Akron.
The marchers even cheered President Litchfield as he raised a window of the Mayflower Hotel and looked out. He must have been surprised.
Saloons and liquor stores were permitted to reopen. Chanties were torn down swiftly and all debris removed. And the traction company was informed that the streets had been cleared and that it might resume normal trolley service in the strike area.
Now we of the CIO committee could relax. We went out to dinner, where there was good music, and danced until the small hours.
On Sunday our people began to depart. Several visitors came in from Detroit, Cleveland, and Toledo, including Homer Martin, Walter P. Reuther, and George F. Addes, all connected with the small but promising United Automobile Workers of America. They were greatly inspired by the outcome of the rubber workers' strike.
"We'll be next," said Martin, the UAW vise-president. "Will you come and help us?"
We said we would.
1. Details of that formula will be found In the appendix.
2. Two Rogues' Gallery portraits of members of Pearl Bergoff's strike-breaking army, shown in the Levinson book. bear the name of Cohen. But any resemblance of Hophead Cohen to either, Mac Coleman insists, was pure coincidence.
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