Sunday, March 9, 2008

Organizing Dayton

This post will combine a bit of urban geography, some factory architecture, and a mostly forgotten social history:

Dayton experienced two great waves of unionization, in the 1890s and in 1930s and 40s. We’ll look at that second wave. But first, a brief backgrounder to set the stage:

Unions, Communists, and the Popular Front


The traditional form of unions up to the 1930s was the craft union, organized around a specific skill or trade (machinists, carpenters, typesetters, etc). The umbrella organization for trade unions was the AFL. An alternative model was revolutionary syndicalism (the old Industrial Workers of the World, AKA IWW, mostly out west before WWI), which faded due to repression.

In the 1930s a new type of union was on the scene, the industrial union, which aimed to organize entire industries, or an entire factory, without respect to trade. This meant organizing unskilled operatives as well as craft workers. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was the umbrella group for these new industrial unions.

Industry-wide organization of large numbers of unskilled operatives of differing races and nationalities working under aggressive management surveillance was difficult at best, and the CIO needed skilled & dedicated organizers without a lot of cultural baggage. Enter the Communist Party (CPUSA).

The Venona decrypts convincingly demonstrate that the CPUSA, at the highest levels at least, was taking direction from the USSR, and its policy reflected Soviet ideology and foreign policy goals to some extent.

Prior to the Nazi takeover in Germany the USSR had a policy of international revolution and directed a policy of non-cooperation with reform movements and parties in the USA and Europe. As this strategy proved disastrous in Germany, the party line changed to one of a popular front, directing the various national CPs to work with and within non-Communist organizations and parties to “fight fascism” (and promote Communism).

In the US, in the 1930s, this meant the CPUSA membership was encouraged to participate in the New Deal and other aspects of US culture and political life, including unions. A quasi-fictional dramatization of this left wing influence on US culture during the popular front era is the Tom Robbins flick “The Cradle Will Rock”(good casting, though).

So, CPUSA members became valued organizers for the early CIO unions, occasionally locally influential, though they usually didn’t dominate union leadership (who were not Communist).

CP party line saw society divided by socioeconomic class rather than race, religion and ethnicity, so the CPUSA membership didn’t have much cultural baggage hindering their reaching out to minorities and immigrants. CPUSA also knew how to persuade, recruit and the value of secrecy. CPUSA organizers working in the CIO were also disciplined, idealistic and motivated.

Early Working Class Organizing in Dayton

This graph of labor organizations listed in the city directories (just a raw count) shows the dramatic rise in labor organization in the 1890s (estimates of up to 40% of workforce unionized), followed by a slump due to management repression, then a slow rise and big jump in the later Depression years.


Manufacturing in Dayton was rendered mostly union-free in the first decade of the 20th century, with the industrial unions of the 1890s mostly busted and disbanded via a coordinated and aggressive campaign by local industry. This campaign and its tactics became a national model, one of Dayton’s many contributions to US economic life.

The next manifestation of working class organization was the rise of the Socialists, who had enough support to get on the city council 10 years after their formation.

This movement was marginalized by municipal reform, which ensured management control of local politics by diluting the political strength of the working class wards.

The UE Comes to Dayton


From 1900 to 1930 Dayton transitioned into manufacturing of auto components, electrical equipment, and precision machinery. The CIO-affiliated United Electrical Workers (UE) targeted the electrical industry, though they did organize beyond electrical workers. The UE specifically targeted the Frigidaire and Delco plants as part of a national strategy to organize the electrical industry

Other CIO unions active in Dayton apparently were the Rubber Workers and, later, the UAW.

Dayton remained a “company town” into the 1930s, firmly under the thumb of management, particularly GM.

GM had a “community control” policy of thwarting union organization in the Dayton manufacturing sector (not just GM). GM paid $187,000/year ($2,992,000 in 2007 dollars) for private agencies to spy & fink on the industrial workforce and entrap pro-union workers, who were then fired.

Later in the 1930s, after the Wagner Act, GM shifted to a policy recruiting in-house informers to spy on their co-workers, which might have made organizing easier. It certainly would have made organizing easier in non-GM plants that no longer had access to private detectives paid for by GM.

So repressive tactics on the shop floor helped delay the labor organizing in Dayton compared to elsewhere in Ohio and the US, as one can see by this time line. Dayton wasn’t affected by the first wave of strikes and unionization in the early and mid 1930s, but long CIO organizing drives eventually paid off with recognition and contracts in the 1940s, apparently achieving this without resorting strikes.


This was similar to the pattern in the packing houses of the Chicago stockyards, were the CIO had a similar long-term organizing drive finally resulting in contracts in the 1940s.

Elsewhere in the US the UE used a “grassroots” method of organizing, drawing organizers from a plant’s rank and file workers. This technique failed in Dayton, so in 1936 the union sent four full-time paid organizers to town. In 1939 five more were sent. Some of these organizers were thought to be Communists

The first one was paid $160/week (in 2007 dollars).

So UE had 9 organizers working in Dayton. The organizing campaign involved leafleting at plant gates, and quite a bit of door-to-door work, meeting with workers at their homes to get them to sign up, and so forth.

The first plant to have an industrial union was Frigidaire. This was a small independent union organized by Kermit Kirkendall (who later was elected to the state senate for one term). Kirkendall was an independent organizer, but affiliated with the UE. This union received a UE charter at Kirkendall’s request. Organizing continued under UE auspices, and Frigidaire workers finally got a contract in the 1940s.

Frigidaire had two plants in Dayton, a downtown one and this mammoth suburban facility:

For GM, though, the first Dayton plant to get a contract was Delco, in 1941

The first plant successfully organized by the UE itself was Leland Electric.
The UE won representation in 1937 as Local 804 and a contract in 1938.


The most militant plant was Master Electric, represented by UE Local 754


This local apparently provided organizers and staff to the UE in Dayton, and remained loyal to the UE when the union split in the late 1940s over Communist influence (UE to IUE, nearly all Dayton locals joined the IUE).



An illustration on how the UE didn’t “see color” is that their organizers had no compunction about organizing the large GHR foundry affiliated with the Platt Iron Works.


GHR (the joke was that GHR meant Go Home and Rest) as part of the Platt Iron Works complex (across the river from the downtown Frigidaire plant):This plant had a largely African-American workforce, and also remained loyal to the UE during the UE/IUE split. This plant also provided some of the UEs more militant organizes, and early leadership.

GHR was part of an Amalgamated Local 768, which represented 14 plants and 3,000 workers.

One of the plants represented by Local 768 was Harris-Seybold. This was a machine maker, and it was an example of having to organize two shifts, day and night (meaning it had two shop stewards on the UE central committee).


A CIO Geography of Dayton


This is map of plants and size of workforce in Dayton from a 1940s planning study. I color coded it showing the larger plants organized by the UE, plus some I think might have been organized by the UAW and the Rubber Workers. There may have been other plants organizied by the AFL , or by CIO units I'm not aware of.

The size of the circle refers to the number of employees at the plant, with the largest pants having 10,000 workers per plant.
(this is an eye chart, so you’ll have to click on it to enlarge)

The map also shows Dayton’s “Socialist Suburb”: the Greenmont Mutual Homes development, which was sponsored and organized by the local CIO, though funded via the Lanham Act. I will be posting more on Greenmont later.

The UE’s Dayton campaign appears to be a fairly successful attempt at organization, with only NCR, of the largest plants, remaining non-union. NCR eventually matched union wages in order to attract workers.

During this period the AFL was also active, organizing various trades and crafts, but also service industry workers. The AFL “Dayton Union News” weekly paper listed 50 locals, including cafeteria workers and barbers.

Unions were apparently popular here during the 1940s. There were two weekly union broadsheet newspapers (not newsletters), the Dayton Union News and the Dayton CIO News. Reading the pages one can see plenty of advertising from small business, including ads from neighborhood groceries, lunch counters, restaurants, and so forth, so small business wasn’t boycotting the union movement by withholding advertising.

Nowadays, of course, private sector unions are nearly as dead in manufacturing, as they were in the early 1900s, though building trades remain fairly unionized. There is also some limited unions in the service industries (three of the four the major grocery chains in Dayton, Cub, Meijer, and Kroger, are union).

A Thank You and Sources

The thank you goes out to WSU reference librarian Meike Clark, who found a misplaced microfilm I was looking for but went above and beyond by scanning two relevant pages and sending them to me. The “CIO organizers Dayton” map wouldn’t have been possible if not for her assistance.

Other Sources:

City of equals : skilled workers, work relations, and culture in Dayton, Ohio, 1880-1901 / by John S. Hoops
Boston University PhD Thesis

Successes, conflicts, and failures of the Dayton Local of the Socialist Party of America: 1910-1917 / by Margaret Katherine Stevens
WSU Masters Theses

Radicalism in American industrial unions : the United Electrical Workers in Dayton, Ohio, 1937-1955 / by Joseph Lawrence Mason
WSU Masters Thesis

Them and us: struggles of a rank-and-file union, by James J. Matles and James Higgins
Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall [1974]

4 comments:

realdayton said...

It's time to get radical again and bring down the municipality/management of local governments. Their structure are an anathema to democracy.

Jeffrey said...

Thats why Dayton has prioriity boards, to give the neighborhoods some voice.

How's that working?

Kevin Moran said...

Depends on who you talk to. Some can, and will, argue that the priority boards don't accomplish much here in Dayton. And others think it's all we have left to achieve community strenth in the municipality. I honestly expect more from my neighborhood than the priority board, but maybe I haven't been paying attention.

Jeffrey said...

What's the relationship between neighborhood associations and the priority board?