The day the city stood still: The story of the Lansing Labor Hol

By Lawrence Cosentino
To freeze commerce, union forces positioned trucks at major arteries leading downtown, such as Washington Avenue, pictured here. (Courtesy Archives of Michigan)

“It was happening when I came down on Washington Avenue,” he said while monitoring the hot dog bun supply at a Burcham Hills Retirement Community picnic last week in East Lansing. “I seen these fellows going up and down, blocking people from entering the stores. I remember they closed up every single store in the city of Lansing.”

For a day that is barely remembered, the Lansing Labor Holiday produced many memorable scenes. Cars and trucks blocked downtown arteries so efficiently that men played craps in the empty intersection of Washington and Michigan avenues. When organizers tried to shut down neighboring East Lansing, angry MSU students threw them into the Red Cedar River. Michigan Gov. Frank Murphy surveyed this signature battle of the auto age from a hill, on horseback.

One more thing stood out about the holiday — its lack of violence. Amid regular reports of head-crackings and tear-gassings at industrial plants across the nation, Time magazine featured an account of the holiday under the heading “Bloodless Interlude.” This was labor unrest, Lansing style. {mosimage}

The fuse

If 1937 had ended in February, it would still have been a watershed year for American labor. Two years earlier, the federal government recognized the rights of American workers to organize and bargain collectively by passing the National Labor Relations Act. “President Roosevelt wants you to join the union,” union leaders could now proclaim.

A 44-day occupation of the GM's Fisher Body plant in Flint ended Feb. 11 when the United Auto Workers, or UAW, won official recognition from the world's biggest car company, along with a union contract. Gov. Murphy, a former child factory worker sympathetic to labor, mediated the settlement.

That year, there would be 177 sit-down strikes lasting one day or longer, involving more than 130,000 workers, in the United States. In Lansing, the Flint victory garnered 12,000 GM workers a raise of 25 cents an hour.

To contain the contagion, GM ran full-page ads in the Lansing State Journal, signed by GM President Alfred P. Sloan. “Have no fear that any union or any labor dictator will dominate the plants of the GM corporation,” Sloan wrote.

But Sloan was spitting dry. A month later, Lansing's hour struck. On March 10, layoffs and wage cuts at the Reo Motor Car factory in south Lansing sparked a sit-down strike involving 1,500 to 2,000 workers — 90 percent of the plant.

In Flint, police had used fire hoses and tear gas to evict the strikers, who threw auto parts back at them. The Reo sit-down, by contrast, was peaceful. Workers sang, boxed, and played checkers. “Reo Strike is Nation's Model Demonstration,” sang a headline in The Lansing Auto Worker. When the strike was settled — again with Murphy's mediation — a victory parade wound through the streets of Lansing, and some celebrants topped it off with a delirious dip in the Grand River.

Now the 15,000-odd auto workers of UAW Local 182, including Reo, Olds, Fisher Body and smaller plants, were under the control of a popular Reo employee and union leader name Lester Washburn.

Washburn was not a political firebrand. He loathed Communists, came from an anti-union family and claimed only to read the “the funnies and the sports page” of the local newspaper.

When it came to organizing, however, he learned fast, and the men liked him. He climbed the organizational ladder quickly, building connections to UAW officials in other Michigan cities, weaving a tight web he would tug when the time came.

The match

On April 25, 19 out of the 25 employees of the Capital City Wrecking Co. walked into the UAW Local 182 hall, organized, and elected officers. The next day, the company fired the six officers.

The UAW's Washburn and others tried to negotiate a new contract and get the workers rehired but did not succeed, and the workers struck the small company May 21. Over 100 sympathetic union members picketed with the workers, setting up a tent and defying a court injunction granted to stop interfering with “private property.” They were still picketing Friday, June 3, and pressure was on Ingham County Sheriff Allan MacDonald to enforce the order.

At 2 a.m. Monday, June 7, MacDonald and his deputies pulled eight sleeping picketers, including Mrs. Lester Washburn, from their homes and took them to jail. Washburn got home from a trip to Detroit at 2:30, found his wife gone, his children unattended and the telephone wire to his home cut. {mosimage}

“We could not have believed our local officials would go to this extent to break the union,” Washburn said later.

According to the expert analysis of local labor historian and longtime Lansing union man Harold Emmons, “that's when the feces hit the fan.”

Washburn and the plant chairmen of Oldsmobile, Fisher Body, Reo, Motor Wheel and Lansing Stamping decided to call a one-day “holiday.”

The union's official statement laid it on thick, taunting “the brave MacDonald and his doughty deputies” for “throwing a harmless and innocent woman into a filthy jail that not even a self-respecting reptile would wallow in.” The union called the holiday, Washburn explained sarcastically, “so the world would never forget Sheriff MacDonald and his courageous deed.”

The triggering event was spontaneous, but MSU professor and Lansing labor historian Lisa Fine thinks Washburn was “poised to do more” after his Reo success. “I don't think the thought to do this occurred to him for the very first time at 2 o'clock that morning,” Fine said.

The implosion

By early afternoon, thousands of UAW members and sympathizers took to the streets and closed all downtown stores, factories, and theaters. (Time magazine reported that 12,000 workers hit the pavement, but other accounts place the number at less than half that.) “Flying squadrons” — on-call picketers from other UAW locals, most likely Pontiac and Flint, possibly Detroit — beefed up the local numbers.

Already the proud holder of many automobile firsts, Lansing now added one more, according to the auto-centric Emmons, who worked 30 years at Oldsmobile and owns a 1931 Reo Royale convertible coupe.

“Using cars to shut things down — parking them all catty-wumpus to block the streets —was a tactic that was pioneered in Lansing,” Emmons said. “This was the first time automobiles were used to augment a labor action.”

While cars and trucks blocked incoming traffic (except medical runs, promised Washburn), picketers surrounded police headquarters, City Hall, and the state Capitol. Lansing Mayor Max Templeton ordered City Hall closed at 11:30 a.m. The craps game at Michigan and Washington was in full swing.

Union members and their wives paraded down Washington Avenue, some with flags, others with two-by-fours. “It wasn't a party mood,” Harold White recalled. “People were concerned. [The marchers] blocked Allegan Street so fire trucks couldn't get out.”

Emmons wasn't there in the flesh, as White was, but heard many stories from older union brothers like John Reid, a Scottish pipefitter who became one of the industry's ablest labor lobbyists.

“Essentially, they shut all the businesses in town down, including the legislature, except for one category of business — the local watering holes,” Emmons said. “These were allowed to stay open, and they were patronized well by the participants.”

Marveling at the bloodlessness of the Lansing Labor Holiday — and the “model” Reo sit-down strike the March before — Lisa Fine pointed to the surprising geographical, cultural and ethnic homogeneity of Lansing's workforce in 1930s.

“In big cities like Chicago and Detroit, there was more of a larger ethnic labor force, more adherence to various radical ideologies,” Fine said. “Most people involved in the Lansing events were people of Michigan rural backgrounds.” Their bosses, even R.E. Olds himself, lived in the same neighborhoods they did. Trashing the place and hurting people would be like fouling their own nest.”

By afternoon, Gov. Murphy announced the release of the eight jailed workers, and negotiations began in earnest. In Lansing, the day's events were winding up. In East Lansing, they were about to heat up — before abruptly cooling down again.

The echo

Standard accounts of the “Battle of East Lansing” begin with the “unspent energy” of Lansing's labor marchers, but Emmons is quick to recall their early-afternoon patronage of Lansing bars and pubs.

“Later in the afternoon, after they'd imbibed liberally, was when they went out to East Lansing and the battle of East Lansing ensued,” Emmons said. “There was a cause and effect relationship there.”

The first contingent of marchers, hoping to shut down East Lansing businesses, were stopped cold by MSU students, many fresh from a baseball game. Cars were lifted, turned around and pointed back west. Organizers who put up a fight were taken to the Red Cedar and dunked. (500-plus MSU students gave peace rally speakers from Ann Arbor a similar dunking two years earlier.)

The union boosters went back for reinforcements and came back in force, only to face over 1,500 students mobbing the corner of Harrison and Michigan avenues, spilling east toward what is now the IM Circle building. ROTC officers and other students headed to the stables to mount a counter-attack on horseback, giving Murphy the opportunity to utter the day's classic line. “No, boys,” he reportedly said. “That would be too Cossack-like!” Murphy, who made almost daily trots to the campus, surveyed the scene on horseback, Napoleon-style, from a hill near the IM Circle.

Meanwhile, at 4:10 p.m. another “flying squadron” entered East Lansing along Grand River Avenue. According to then-Michigan State News editorial director Steve Burhans, the first 60-odd men closed all the stores along the main street with the exception of a hole in the wall called Jim Brakeman's Bootery, “the smallest shoe store in the world.” Brakeman, a 250-pound former MSU footballer, led a resistance that ended again in the Red Cedar.

“More than eight strikers went [into the river] — around 20, I believe, for I saw and counted 10 in at once,” Burhans later recalled. Burhans estimated the East Lansing actions involved 3,000 students and 200 strikers in all. All print accounts of the battle maintain the MSU students were asserting local pride or protecting their beloved eateries, but subsequent developments point to something more.

The recoil

Lansing's rural-rooted, down-home homogeneity may have helped keep the labor holiday bloodless, but the city's provinciality cut two ways. The trousers of the dunked strikers were hardly dry before Lansing area residents revived old complaints against rabble-rousers and “outside agitators,” forgetting the event's overwhelmingly local character.

Forty-six members of the state legislature wrote to MSU President Robert S. Shaw, lauding him for “turning out the type of young men and women who have had instilled in their characters the high standards and ideals of this great nation, together with the force and courage to carry them out.”

In Lansing itself, the paralyzing, peaceful blizzard melted as fast as it swept in. On June 8, the day after the holiday, 4,000 ultra-conservative Knights Templar marched the same Lansing streets where laborers marched the day before. The Masonic order formed its huge human “passion cross” to tremendous cheers, while speakers railed against “mob rule” and proclaimed the sanctity of property rights, “law and order and the Christian religion.”

Harold White recalled talking about the holiday in class that day. “I remember hearing one of the kids say we ought to outlaw the unions,” he said.

By the end of the month, Lansing had a new Law and Order League, bitterly opposed by the UAW's Lester Washburn and founded by American Legion commander and high school principal Dwight Rich, whose name still sticks to a Lansing middle school.

If Washburn could have looked into a crystal ball that June, he would have seen even more unwelcome visions. He would have seen UAW leader Homer Martin repudiate the Lansing labor holiday only a month later as a “mistake made by a young and growing organization.” He would have seen the fraternal power struggles that led to his own ouster from the Lansing UAW as it affiliated with the CIO, or Congress of Industrial Organizations, in 1939. He might have even seen the downward spiral and ultimate demise of the Reo enterprise in 1975, and perhaps gotten a glimpse of the dramatic drop in union membership and clout that changed the face of labor, from the 1970s oil shock all the way to the proposed GM wage and benefit concessions of last week's headlines. By then, however, Washburn's attention would probably have wandered from the crystal ball, flying back to the day labor held Lansing still and made it listen.