Strike threw a monkey wrench into Montgomery Ward’s holiday plans 75 years ago

Kris Kringle has graced The Union Advocate’s pages in several forms over the years. In 1962 his beard was used as a symbol of the union advantage.

More than 30 workers in St. Paul threw a monkey wrench into Montgomery Ward’s holiday-shopping rush Dec. 6, 1937, walking off the job after management at the mail-order company’s University Avenue plant refused to negotiate with their elected union representative, Warehouse Employees Local 20,297.

The picket line drew 300 supporters on the strike’s first day, according to The Union Advocate.

A week later police conducted a “mass arrest” of picketers, who were charged with disorderly conduct. Police levied the same charge against a Montgomery Ward detective accused of entering Local 20,297’s strike headquarters and “using abusive language.”

Despite the bluster, the strike fizzled out after its second week as a result of lukewarm support from the labor community. The St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly voted against placing Montgomery Ward on its “do not patronize list,” noting that several craft unions, including the Electrical Workers and Operating Engineers, had members working inside the University Avenue plant.

While some of the workers were reinstated after the strike ended, those who were unwilling to “repudiate their union membership” were not, according to National Labor Relations Board charges filed the following July. The NLRB charges also alleged Montgomery Ward “maintained an espionage system among its employees to not only discourage unionization but to virtually prohibit it,” the Advocate reported.

[The Union Advocate’s “This Month in the Archives” feature offers a look back at what our newspaper was reporting from 5 to 100 years ago. Our digital archives are online, searchable and free to anyone. Click here for access.]

In 1997 Santa joined volunteers in the Minneapolis skyway to call attention to sweatshop labor.

100 Years Ago: Shoe Cutters staged organizing drive

St. Paul-based Shoe Cutters Union No. 281 scored a major organizing victory in December 1912, expanding its membership rolls to include roughly 85 percent of all shoe cutters in St. Paul.

The union, which represented workers at only one local shoe manufacturer prior to the organizing drive, successfully appealed to non-union workers, according to the Dec. 27 edition of The Union Advocate, with a mix of economic and social incentives.

A circular letter sent to all shoe cutters “contrasted the conditions in the factories where … a minimum wage for cutting prevailed with those in the unorganized factories where cutters were paid a sliding scale based upon the necessities of the employer.”

Later, Local 281 hosted a “stag party” for the city’s union and non-union shoe cutters. The party netted “a large number of applications for membership,” giving the local enough clout to present a price list – with a minimum wage scale – to several manufacturers in St. Paul.

All but one of those manufacturers agreed to the union’s terms, The Advocate reported. “A strike was called against the factory which held out, and in less than a day afterward this factory also conceded the demands of the union.”

The new price lists resulted in wage increases for the city’s shoe cutters of between $1.50 and $3 per week.

In 1987 Santa urged shoppers to buy union.

25 Years Ago: Carpenters targeted chain restaurant builders

A non-union construction firm building Bonanza Steakhouse restaurants across the Twin Cities suburbs found itself the target of an aggressive campaign of leafletting, picketing and consumer boycotts, staged by Carpenters Local 87 in the fall of 1987.

The campaign eventually led to victory for all Building Trades unions, the Dec. 14 Union Advocate reported, as Alexandria-based Don Getz Construction agreed to use union labor on all future construction jobs. Getz signed the agreement in a donut shop with Local 87 business representative Jerry Beedle, after approaching him during an action outside the Bonanza in Stillwater.

Beedle said the agreement marked a big victory in the trades’ battle to keep fast food and retail chains from building non-union. “If you allow one fast food operation to go non-union, then the danger is another and another and another will take the same route,” Beedle said.

Discount retailers don’t often care about the value in hiring construction workers who are better trained and more productive, he added, making public pressure necessary. “We use every negotiable way to try to get employers to the bargaining table, and when we have to, we use consumer pressure,” Beedle said. “We’ve found that’s been very effective.”

10 Years Ago: Bush, Pawlenty eyed privatization

Minnesota’s public employees were bracing themselves for privatization battles at the federal and state levels in December 2002, as Union Advocate Editor Michael Kuchta reported.

Republican executives in the White House (George W. Bush) and in St. Paul (Governor-elect Tim Pawlenty) were touting alleged cost savings taxpayers would realize by outsourcing public employees’ jobs to the private sector.

But public sector union leaders called the privatization push crony capitalism at its worst. “The Republican Party at the state level is doing the same thing the Republican Party is doing on the federal level – paying back their contributors,” said Jim Monroe, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees.

As for the cost savings of privatization? U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum wasn’t buying what Bush was selling.

“While the stated goal of this move is cost savings, the administration has been unwilling to back up this claim with facts,” she said. Because private companies need to make a profit, she pointed out, they often achieve low bids only by undercutting wage, benefit and safety standards.

McCollum also raised fears of increased fraud and other bad behavior.

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