The role of religion in the 1911 furniture workers’ strike in Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) – The 1911 furniture workers’ strike in Grand Rapids will be known by the number of lines drawn in the sand. It was not simply a struggle between the haves and the have-nots, or the lower and middle class workers against the property-owning elite. It was also a struggle with clear lines among the workers, especially religion and ethnicity.

One of the factors that made the furniture industry flourish in Grand Rapids was cheap labor. After the American Civil War, the city’s population exploded with European immigrants looking for a fresh start. From 1865 to 1910, the population of Grand Rapids increased from 15,000 to 110,000 residents.

The largest groups of immigrants came from the Netherlands and Poland, but Grand Rapids also saw several German, Lithuanian, and Scandinavian families.

When they left their home countries, the immigrants brought with them their customs and traditions, including their religious beliefs. But labor historian Jeffrey Kleiman said the dividing lines ran deeper than just Protestant or Catholic.

“Catholics are divided along ethnic lines. Germans and Poles didn’t like each other in Europe. It doesn’t mean that they liked each other in the United States,” Kleiman told News 8. “If you look at housing conditions, the Poles are a far cry from the Germans. (They wanted) a Polish church. They didn’t want to go to a German community.”

The collapse left even more dividing lines for Protestants.

Although there was no legal precedent for separating neighborhoods, the people of Grand Rapids essentially did it themselves. By the early 20th century, immigrants had claimed parts of the city for themselves. This is why the West Side of Grand Rapids has such a strong Polish history, dominating most of the country between Bridge Street and Leonard Street and from the Grand River to Valley Avenue.

The Dutch bags were smaller and more widespread, including the Northwest neighborhood north of Leonard Street, much of the Northeast side, and the Southeast side between Madison and Fuller Avenues, and Wealthy Streets and Franklin Streets.

According to Kleiman, these rifts between communities were the main difference between merging and forming unions and the eventual failure of the strike without a new settlement.

“You take an already fragile alliance and shatter it. … Both Calvinist groups said, “Well, we’re going to work with the Poles because we have to. We will demand it and get paid extra if we have to work with the Poles. But you know, they go to hell. We don’t have to worry about them,” Kleiman said. “But[the Dutch Calvinists]didn’t like the Methodists and the Baptists because they’re Protestants and should know better.”

When the strike broke out, the workers were united in their demands but not in who they were as a group.

Prior to serving as Auxiliary Bishop for the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Joseph Schrembs served in various capacities at St. Mary Catholic Church. Founded in 1857, St. Mary’s still stands at the corner of First Street and Turner Avenue in the north-west of the city. (Matt Jaworowski/WOOD TV8)


There were also clear divisions between the top leaders of the local church.

Joseph Schrembs had served in a variety of capacities in the Grand Rapids area, including senior pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Grand Rapids. He was appointed auxiliary bishop Diocese of Grand Rapids in January 1911, just as tensions and talk of a strike were beginning to mount. Schrembs was considered a pro-worker bishop, an absolute rarity.

Bishop Joseph Schrembs (Courtesy: Grand Rapids Public Library Archives)

in the An interview from 2010 Labor historian Michael Johnston, along with Jeff Smith of the Grand Rapids People’s History Project, contends that Schrembs was one of two Catholic bishops in world history to support the work, the other being Francis Haas, who also served in the Grand Rapids Diocese.

According to Kleiman’s book Strike: How the Furniture Workers Strike of 1911 Changed Grand Rapids, Schrembs believed that the position of the Roman Catholic Church was more in line with the workers than with the furniture lords – “that the consolidation of labor was a just response to the concentration of capital “.

Schrembs joined the fray, leading the fight to avoid a strike and secure a fair settlement between the workers and the companies without an actual walkout. Days after thousands of workers voted almost unanimously to go on strike, Schrembs and other city leaders persuaded the owners of the furniture companies and their organization—the Furniture Manufacturers Association—to set up a committee to hear the workers and examine whether their demands had any merit .

Rev. Alfred Wishart (Courtesy: Grand Rapids Public Library Archives)

Schrembs was joined on the committee by his colleague Rev. Alfred Wishart. In 1906 he was employed as a pastor Baptist Church on Brunnenstrasse, selected by a committee that included Robert Irwin of Irwin Seating. A firm but conservative supporter of social gospel, he encouraged his parishioners not only to be of the world, but also to influence the world around them for the greater good. He was also pro-industry and on excellent terms with company owners, often preaching that the public should “look to industry leaders for industrial solutions”.

In “Strike,” Kleiman quoted Wishart as saying, “The working class is feverish, restless, pressing on by strange standards, inspired by ideals, and led by men outside the Church, many of whom are indifferent or hostile to them.”

Schrembs and Wishart only seemed to agree that work stoppage should be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, the committee’s work failed.

On April 18, 1911, the FMA issued a statement that the owners would not hold talks with the workers about a collective agreement. Thousands of workers left work the next day.

Rev. Alfred Wishart led Fountain Street Baptist Church from 1906 until his death in 1933. The church, which dropped Baptist from its name in 1960, celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2019. (Matt Jaworowski/WOOD TV8)


The strike itself lasted about four months, with the two sides trading slaps at each other in the press and in a few selected cases on the streets outside the furniture factories.

Four unions supported the workers to help them make ends meet during the strike, but by August funds had dried up and many of the strikers had accepted the loss and returned to work.

On August 9, the Reformed Christian Church struck the final blow to end the struggle. Since many of the strikers had already left, the church issued a decree that said church members were not allowed to join a union. The decree wiped out what was left of the labor movement. By the time many of their Dutch brethren returned across the lines, the strikers knew the struggle was over. By August 19, the remaining strikers had voted to end their hiatus and returned to work.

Wishart served as leader of Fountain Street Church for another two decades and served as pastor until his death in 1933.

Just weeks after the strike ended and months after his promotion to auxiliary bishop, Schrembs was promoted again, this time as bishop of the new diocese of Toledo, Ohio. Although there is no clear evidence that his role in the strike motivated the move, many historians believe that the strong influence of the local furniture barons played some role.

*Editor’s note: This article is part of a series dedicated to the 1911 strike. The series will continue on in the coming days and weeks. The role of religion in the 1911 furniture workers' strike in Grand Rapids

Dais Johnston

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