Feb 17, 2007
I wanted to congratulate a friend I have known since I was in elementary school, a loyal Democrat who has worked hard for Democratic candidates and a labor leader on receiving a grant from the Michigan Council of Humanities to mark the most violent labor strike in the City of Monroe’s history and a pivotal point in American labor history.
Bill Connor, the president of the Monroe/Lenawee AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, is also the curator of the Monroe County Labor History Museum, and he almost single-handedly raised the money and organized the museum located in the historic Phillip Murray Building in downtown Monroe that has long been a landmark site for local unions.
The grant the museum received on Friday will create a permanent display at the museum and a satellite exhibit at the River Raisin Battlefield Visitors Center marking the bitter and violent attempt by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to organize the Republic Steel plant in Monroe in 1935.
According the Monroe Evening News, during a bitter strike in 1937, workers and police clashed. Strikers were beaten and tear-gassed. Cars were overturned and dumped into the River Raisin. A deputized goon squad that included citizens and vigilantes chased and beat workers, injuring 11 people. Republic fielded a security force that joined forces with numerous citizens "deputized" as special police and issued billyclubs lathed in Loranger Square downtown.
This display will illustrate the rich labor history of my hometown, and organized labor’s role in creating the middle class and giving workers some basic human rights and dignity. These same labor unions are under attack today much like they were 70 years ago and beyond, but now the tactics are much more covert and subtle but no less evil.
One interesting thing about the article to me was one of the last paragraphs where it says even though the CIO failed to organize the plant in the face of the brutal attack, it survived and it learned. The CIO went on to organize the area's paper plant workers in the 1940s and made possible unions in other industries.
My grandfather worked and retired from one of those paper mills, located near where the Republic Steel plant was located that is now an ice-skating rink and a housing development.
My grandfather came up from a place called Tazewell, Tenn. to Monroe, where I believe at one time it seemed like half of Monroe's residents hailed from, to work in the plant. He told me stories of going to work before Consolidated Paper, Co. was organized and not knowing if he and his fellow workers would come home from work alive or with all of their fingers, toes or limbs. He was a loyal union Democrat his entire life.
He and my grandmother raised six children during the Great Depression, and when he died a few years ago in his 90’s he left behind a healthy estate. My grandmother never threw anything away, and every thing could be used more than once or for another purpose.
If you are ever in Monroe visit the museum at 41 W. Front St., and visit the exhibit called "The Nation's Eyes Are on Monroe: Second Conflict on the River Raisin" when it’s unveiled in early May to mark the 70th anniversary of the strike.