Mar 25, 2008

A bit of history: Michigan's only labor museum taking shape


MONROE -- Michigan has a long and rich history of organized labor, but that history is being lost as labor union membership falls off and some smaller unions fold.

Bill Conner, the president of the Monroe County Council CIO Social and Welfare Association, is putting his labor, sweat and money into preserving that history with the restoration and improvement of the only labor museum in the state. Since 2001 the association has been planning to turn the historic Phillip Murray Building in downtown Monroe into the Monroe County Labor History Museum, and in February of last year after lots of work it opened for business.

Conner is also the curator of the museum, housed in a two-story brick building that was built in 1912, and Conner, who was born and raised in Monroe, is a walking encyclopedia of labor history in the area. He said the building had been used off and on for a union meeting hall for a number of years before it was owned by the association. In 1935 some eight unions that represented production and factory workers within the American Federation of Labor – that consisted primarily of skilled trades -- split to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Monroe once had numerous paper factories, and those workers were represented by the CIO. At their peak the unions in the CIO represented more than 6,000 paper mill workers.

“It was not uncommon in those days for the kids to come into the plants and bring their father their lunch or dinner,” Conner said. “They ran 24-seven, and if their relief did not show up, they worked for 16 hours.”

On Feb. 5, 1946, the CIO purchased the building after making a down payment by assessing each member a one-time fee of $12.75. In 1953 the building was dedicated to Philip Murray, the first president of the United Steelworkers of America, following his death in 1952.

Over the years, the building fell into disrepair, and the first floor was divided into two buildings with a marriage wall with a separate entrance; the west side of the building was leased to a social club. Three years ago the association began a fund-raising effort to raise $1.5 million for the renovations, and the association took over the entire building.

“We are asking the labor unions in the area to make a financial commitment over a period of years,” Conner said. “In a perfect world we would like to raise the money in three years.”

Renovations began in the west-side, first-floor portion of the hall, and the renovations revealed a beautiful wood floor and a ceiling that resembles the impressive, decorative ceiling in the state Capitol.

“Once we got in here and started the renovations, we realized what a gem we had,” Conner said. “We have been doing a lot of renovations, and we have made some great discoveries.”

The first display opened for visitors last February in the west side of the building, and the museum used a grant from the Michigan Council of Humanities to create a display called “The Eyes of the Nation Were on Monroe” to mark the bitter and violent attempt by the CIO to organize the Republic Steel plant in Monroe in 1935. Some 100 strikers were met by an armed posse deputized by the mayor of Monroe and the Michigan National Guard. The display features 20 displays, each 24 by72 feet, that are lightweight and can easily be moved for a traveling display, as well as easy storage to make way for new displays.

The museum has even received some corporate help from companies like Consumers Power, but the biggest help has been from in-kind donations from the building trade unions in sweat equity.

“They are giving us a lot of help,” Conner said. “The money we raise goes toward material, and we take advantage of the free labor. It will be a great showcase for them.”

Much of the expense will be to make the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Plans are to knock out an entrance between the two halves of the building on the first floor. An elevator will be built in the back of the first floor in the east side of the building, and ADA restrooms will be built on the first floor. A large office on the first floor of the east side of the building will be turned into a hands-on display for elementary school students.

“We are really aiming at kids in the fourth and fifth grades, and we have also gone into the schools to bring the history of labor to them,” Connor said. “We need to teach a new generation to understand that the standard of living we all enjoy came on the backs of organized labor.”

The second floor is still used as a meeting hall for union and community groups, and that will continue. However, there are plans to build five small offices in the rear of the hall on the second floor that will be rented out to union locals that will help pay for upkeep of the building. Conner has lined the walls of the second floor with the framed charters of defunct union locals he has found during the renovations.

“When they went out of business, the charter was pulled of the wall and chucked in an office,” he said.

Conner said the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University is also working on some permanent displays for the walls that will highlight organized labor’s accomplishments, like the eight-hour workweek, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)and the Social Security Act.

The museum is free and open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.To make a donation of memorabilia or artifacts contact Conner at lwconnerjr@mail.com. To make a monetary contribution to the renovation fund contact Robert Hoffman at reh453@hotmail.com.

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