Woodworkers Strike
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OF 1898

    By the late 1800's Oshkosh's main industry was woodworking. There were lumber mills; sash, door and blind factories; furniture factories; and other woodworking plants. It was big business and the mill owners were becoming extremely rich. But, they were doing so off the labor of severely underpaid workers. The workers were paid as little as a dollar a day for a ten hour workday at a job that was considered skilled labor. Women and boys were paid even less for the same amount of work.  Some made as little as forty cents a day. The mills had recruited workers directly from Europe to toil in their factories.

    In 1898, industrial employment in Oshkosh was about 5,000 out of a total population of about 28,000. Employment in the seven large woodworking factories was about 2,200.  The Paine Lumber Co. employed the most at 768, Morgan Co. had 350 employees, McMillen Co. had about 300, Williamson and Libbey had 200 employees, The Forster-Haffner Co. about 200, The Gould Co. about 150 and The Radford Co. approximately 200. These factories were only the door, sash and blind factories, not the furniture factories.   

Paine Lumber Mill circa 1916.

Hauling Logs out of the Northern forests.

Some men would work in the Northern forests during the winter when the mills were closed. Some immigrants went straight to Aniwa, Shawano and other logging communities. The trees would be cut during the winter and then in the spring the logs would be floated down the Wolf River. The logs would be branded so at the other end the sorters would know what log went to what mill. The logs would then be tied together in large rafts and sent to the right mill. This work could not happen in the winter because the rivers and lakes would freeze. 

   Relations between management  and labor were horrendous in the mills, mainly because of the actions of George Paine of the Paine Lumber Co.  He considered laborers to be objects and not people. The companies had been reducing wages for years and were replacing men with women and children. By 1898 the workers were ready to demand an improvement in working conditions and pay. They  joined the Amalgamated Woodworkers Union.          

The union drafted a list of terms including:

1)       25% pay increase with a minimum of $1.50 a day.

2)       An end to the employment of women.

3)       Recognition of the union.

4)       Regular weekly pay days. (Although there was a law that said factory workers were to be paid weekly, the mill owners ignored it and it was not enforced.)

    The mill owners met to discuss the demands and failed to act. That Monday, May 16, 1898 the workers went on strike. Thirteen hundred workers stayed home that day but the mills continued to operate with small crews.  The mills they struck were The Paine Lumber Company, The R. McMillan Co., The Radford Brothers Co., The Williamson and Libbey Co., The Forster-Haffner Co., The Morgan Co. and the Gould Co.   These mills were sash, door and blind factories. The furniture, box, and other woodworking plants were not part of the strike.

    Thomas L. Kidd, the Secretary of the Amalgamated Woodworkers Union, came in to handle the strike. He told the press that the manufacturers had provoked the strike by refusing to talk to the union. He ordered that the strikers would not be permitted to congregate on the street.  He did not want public opinion to go against the strikers.

    The strike continued for the week without incident. The Gould Co. closed up shop because of an inadequate crew. The next week Samuel Gompers, the head of The American Federation of Labor, arrived and spoke to the strikers.  He said that the AFL would do what ever was needed to help the strikers. He said that the conditions and wages of the workers were some of the worst he had ever seen. The strikers were rejuvenated after his visit and more strikers went on picket duty. 

    The strike was peaceful all through June until the 23rd, when a crowd gathered outside the Morgan plant and drove away non union workers. Newspaper reports of the day report that the wives of the strikers were the most aggressive. They chased workers that tried to enter the plant and threw eggs and stones and clubbed the men with three and four foot long boards. 

        There were incidents at other plants and the most serious incident was at the McMillen plant were James Morris, a sixteen year old striker, was hit in the head during a battle and killed. Plant engineer Edward Casey was identified as the man that had hit the boy in the head with a club. He was later found not guilty. On June 26th there was a large public funeral for their fallen comrade. There was a  procession of 1300 mourners from the Turner Hall and St. Peter's Church to Riverside Cemetery. 

    The violence led to the calling in of the National Guard. They set up position at the Morgan plant with gatling guns. There was no violence after that. 

    By June 27th the workers at the McMillen Co. accepted a minor improvement in wages and went back to work.

    The other mill owners decide to close their mills voluntarily until the men were willing to return to work. The strike dragged on through July. In early August several mills reopened with limited crews but no union men. Many of the strikers were having a very hard time providing for their families.  They never did make much of a living wage to begin with and now with the limited strike pay they received, many men left the city to take jobs elsewhere. Some men went to work at another sash, door and blind factory in Muscatine, Iowa. Some of the jobs were paying twice as much as the Oshkosh woodworking jobs. It is amazing that any of the strikers stayed in Oshkosh and endured the strike and the lousy wages their old jobs paid.  

    In mid to late August the strike ended and all workers went back to work, with no company making any concessions to the original demands. The wages were still the lowest in the industry and remained so for years after. Children continued to be employed in the mills and the state did nothing to enforce child labor laws.

    George Paine convinced prosecutors to arrest Kidd for conspiracy to hurt the business of the Paine Lumber Co. Kidd hired the prominent  lawyer, Clarence Darrow to defend him. 

    Clarence Darrow took the case because he believed that this was not an ordinary case of conspiracy, but a larger issue involving the rights of workers to withhold work and that the future of labor rested on the outcome. His summation was brilliant and had a lasting effect on the labor movement. He spoke without notes and it lasted for seven and one half hours. Kidd was found not guilty.

Another link to a story on the Woodworkers strike: http://www2.crown.net/sspicer/pages/strike/Oshkosh_wwstrike.html
Contact: Peter Kinderman
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