1937 : Labor Activists Demonstrate In Lansing, Michigan

June 7, 2018 all-day

Upset by the arrest of UAW Workers trying to unionize Capital City Wrecking Company during the night, labor supporters demonstrate outside the Lansing City Hall where the prisoners were being held. Before the day was over the city would grind to a halt. Union supporters blocked streets with various vehicles. The union claimed that 12,000 workers in the city went on strike that day. The Journal placed the downtown crowd alone at 4,500. Most businesses supported the call for a labor holiday.

For the full article, see Matthew Miller, “Lansing Labor Holiday: Taking it to the streets”, Lansing State Journal, June 7, 2012. Photos also available.

On June 7, 1937, 20,000 angry unionists parked their cars in the middle of the street and pressured shop owners to close stores to protest the arrest of a labor leader’s wife. The “Lansing Labor Holiday” general strike – and the ensuing “Battle of East Lansing” – ended as quickly as it began. But some local historians say the events imbued Lansing with a strong pro-labor identity it hadn’t had before. Yet, it’s a chapter of the city’s history that’s often overlooked.

“It shows how a community can have virtual amnesia,” said John Beck, Michigan State University associate professor of labor. “These events had a real effect. They did change the community, and we’re a strong union town to this day.”

Back in 1937, the conditions were ripe for labor unrest.

People around the country still endured the Great Depression. Four months earlier, autoworkers in Flint ended their famed sitdown strike, which resulted in a historic agreement between General Motor Corp. and the United Auto Workers union to organize the carmaker’s plants.

Elsewhere, the Golden Gate Bridge opened, and Amelia Earhart was on her fatal, final voyage.

In Lansing, labor organizers, led by Lester Washburn, tried to unionize the Capital City Wrecking Co. The company got an injunction to prohibit picketing on its property, which organizers ignored.

Ingham County Sheriff Allan MacDonald came to arrest Washburn at his home the night of Sunday, June 6. He was out of town, so his wife was arrested instead, leaving the couple’s 7-, 8- and 10-year-olds home alone.

The arrest prompted labor leaders into action.

By dawn, they decided to shut down the city.

March on East Lansing

Thousands of unionists and sympathizers parked cars in city streets. Picketers asked businesses to close for the day – except bars, which remained open to serve alcohol.

By the end of the day, Washburn’s wife and others arrested Sunday were released. But some demonstrators, who wanted more action, decided to march on East Lansing.

Their arrival in the college town raised eyebrows. One student was reported to taunt the marchers, yelling: “You may be able to run Lansing and Flint, but you can’t run East Lansing.” Another said the incident was similar to “the Battle of Bunker Hill and a Mardi Gras all rolled into one,” according to a 1965 article in Michigan History magazine.

Finally, a group of strapping young men from the university – then known as Michigan State College – grabbed eight protestors and hurled them into the Red Cedar River.

The next day, Capital City Wrecking Co. signed an agreement with the United Auto Workers which increased wages to 65 cents an hour, instituted time-and-a-half pay for overtime and reinstated fired workers.

For the full article see Barbara Wieland, “70 years ago, labor took control of Lansing streets”, Lansing State Journal, June 9, 2007.

Vickki Dozier, “The day Lansing shut down“, Lansing State Journal, June 2, 2017.

Lansing Labor Holiday, June 7, 1937 Facebook page.

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