Tuesday, March 18, 2008

60 Years Ago: The Great Univis Strike of 1948

Another installment in “A People’s History of Dayton” (apologies to Howard Zinn).: This time we’ll look at a long forgotten strike that involved a remarkable degree of labor solidarity.

As we’ve seen, by the end of WWII the radical CIO union UE had successfully organized a number of the larger and mid-sized factories in Dayton, and did so without violent strikes or lockouts.

This was to change in the early postwar era. Sixty years ago this year Dayton was to experience perhaps it’s most violent and intense strike of the 20th century, the Univis Strike, marking the high water mark of union militancy in Dayton.

Forgotten today, this labor battle pitted UE local 768, with support from Frigidaire, Delco and GHR Foundry workers, against the Univis Lens company, Dayton police, the Ohio National Guard, the courts, and the local media.

Run-up to the Strike

Univis started in the 1920s, but had built a new plant in north Dayton in the 1940s, employing at its peak 800, a mix of male and female workers. The company made various kinds of lenses, for the military and civilians

In the 1940s the company moved into this new plant on the former site of McCook Field, which was being developed in part as an early industrial park, perhaps the first one in Dayton without rail access
UE organized the plant in 1946, with the first contract signed that year. The organizing drive was a tough one, where the company apparently tried to stymie the union by laying off a bunch of the union members just prior to the certification election.

In 1948 the contract came up for renewal, but the union and company could not reach agreement during negotiations. Union leadership recommended an extension to the contract and to continue negotiation, but the rank and file disagreed and voted down the proposal on 30 April . There were two strike votes, one deadlocked, but a second one a four days later passed (against recommendations from union leadership), and the strike was on:



14 May: Shop steward urges greater turnout on the picket line, and members agree to let salaried workers pass the pickets.

Negotiations remained deadlocked


2 June: Company seeks injunction to limit pickets, union leadership threatens to mobilize Delco, Frigidaire, Master, and Airtemp workers to join the pickets if Univis succeeds.

14 June: Court of Common Pleas grants injunction imposing a 6 man limit on pickets.

15 June: Univis VP attempts to lead a some returning workers across the picket line, confronts 400 UE members, a scuffle breaks out, back-to-work attempt is thwarted.

17 June: Dayton mayor offers to arbitrate dispute. Union accepts offer, Univis rejects.

17-22 June: Police begin clearing a path through the pickets, union leaders file a complaint about excessive force, and other UE locals throughout the city volunteer to help, including GHR foundry workers, who took a half-day off to walk the picket line. Financial assistance is also provided to the strike fund by other Dayton locals.


Early July: Univis circulates petition saying strikers wanting to return to work should sign, 30% do sign. Univis then uses this petition to request a union decertification election (workers later say, via affidavit, that the petition was circulated under false pretenses)

July 23: NLRB decertification election. Management offers raises, bribes, and promotions as well as threats to secure a decertification vote. Union protests election & vows to remain on strike.

July 26-29: Violence on the ;picket line increases: 3 day running battle between pickets and the police.

July 30 (Friday): 10,000 workers mostly from the 3rd shift at Frigidaire and Delco join the pickets, and prevent the police from opening a path to the plant.


1 August: Emergency meeting with the union & management with the Governor to try to settle, with an agreement to rehire most workers, and submit 11 workers (strike leaders) to arbitration. Agreement was rejected by both the shop steward and the rank and file.

2 August: Thousands on the picket line and police unable to cope. Governor mobilizes the National Guard.

2 August (evening): 1,200 guardsmen armed with tear gas, machine guns, armored cars, and three Sherman tanks patrol the streets of North Dayton (cantonment area on the grounds of McGuffy School) and disperse the strikers (presumably martial law was declared). This was the first time in Dayton history that troops were used to put down a strike.

Strike sites.

Note that it was a walk up Webster and Keowee for the workers at GHR, Frigidaire and Delco to help out on the picket line, unless they drove or took a bus..
The union had picket line headquarters in this nearby bowling alley (probably in the restaurant or bar)

National Guard used the school grounds here as their base and camp.

The Univis plant today

After the Strike

Though Univis won the strike in 1948 apparently management had soured on Dayton. In 1951 a letter was sent to stockholders briefly discussing a plant being built in Puerto Rico, but implying that the work would not be phased out at the Dayton plant, Yet by 1953 the workforce had dropped to 150. In 1954 news reports indicated the Dayton plant was being considered for sale, presumably due to operations having been relocated to Puerto Rico.

So perhaps a very early example of off-shoring production to get away from labor issues, even if those problems seemed solved by the union being defeated.

One should note that this was during the early Cold War (Berlin Airlift the same year). The media at the time spun the Communist angle, as in this Time magazine article (which gets the facts wrong):

Brass Knuckles: Not since the 1913 flood had Dayton been so excited. One day last week, word spread that big trouble was brewing on the picket lines at the Univis Lens Co. Some 7,500 Daytonians turned out to watch. They saw 160 policemen move in, pour tear gas into a yelling union mob. A savage, three-month-old strike in which heads had been bloodied, stink bombs tossed at non-strikers, ribs prodded by police billies, had reached its climax.

The Dayton Daily News also used the strike as an excuse to red-bait local UE leadership. Interestingly, though UE organizers were prominent on the picket line and during the violence (beaten by the police, one while in custody), it seems the CPUSA members in union leadership actually counseled against the strike, and recommended accepting the offer brokered by the governor, but were rebuffed by the Univis rank and file and their shop steward, who, though an ardent unionist, was equally anti-communist.

So it seems that the Communists did try to influence matters, but not in the way the press was reporting.

And rank-and-file union members in Dayton were pretty militant whatever their political affiliation, not to mention showing remarkable solidarity: Delco, Frigidaire, and GHR Foundry workers not only raising funds but also volunteering for picket duty in huge numbers, something that would be unheard of today.

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