The Essex Wire strike shouldn’t have been such a big deal. It involved only 140 workers, lasted only 102 days and happened in the small town of Hillsdale, Mich. But by the time it was over, the entire country was aware of what had happened in the spring and early summer of 1964.

Essex Wire Corporation, which was among the top 50 corporate money makers in 1964, made magnet wire. It was insulated from public scrutiny because its customers were other industries, mainly car manufacturers, it didn’t issue stock on the open market, its management was controlled by only a few men, and the names of those who owned shares in the company were never made public. As a privately owned company it felt a greater obligation to its shareholders than if its business had been open to public scrutiny. Essex opened the Hillsdale operation in 1957 because, its officials freely admitted, it would be able to pay lower wages than at its Fort Wayne, Ind., plant. It intended to experiment in the Hillsdale plant with different production techniques, seeking ways to make wire more efficiently. There was nothing nefarious in their reasons for making these decisions. On Feb. 28, 1964, however, the members of Local 810 of the Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (shortened to UE), believing that the company was taking unfair advantage of them, walked off their jobs.

In October 1960 and November 1963, two different unions had been voted out by the workers at the Hillsdale Essex plant. The workers claimed that union leadership had been making sweetheart deals with Essex Wire instead of protecting the rights of the union membership.The most disruptive change came in 1963 when the International Brotherhood of Teamsters was replaced by the UE, which was part of the AFL-CIO. These were the two union big boys, and there was serious disarray at the Essex plant when workers split over which union should represent them.  At the time the strike commenced, these are the (simplified) two sides of complaint:

Wages

Essex Wire felt that it was overpaying new workers, who had to be trained. After training, they were more productive and finally earning the wage they were paid initially, so no raise was warranted. The workers wanted their wages, averaging $2.43 per hour, to be raised to the same average in the Fort Wayne plant of $3.00 per hour. 

Job Descriptions:

In experimenting with how to make wire more efficiently, Essex constantly shifted men and jobs to find the best combinations of responsibilities and techniques.The workers felt the company was taking advantage of them by not designating which jobs were skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled in order to move them from job to job without commensurate pay differences. In addition, workers complained that they were expected to be on call at all times because they never knew when they would be summoned for overtime, and if they didn’t show up they were fired.

Promotions:

Essex said it promoted men for reasons of merit and job qualifications. The union said promotions awarded men who were loyal to management, regardless of qualifications.

There was no doubt that the union had reached a level of bitterness that made it ripe for violence. The union’s intransigence was equaled by that of Essex Wire. Since its founding in 1937, Essex had gained a reputation for being a tough bargainer in labor negotiations. Prior to 1964 it had been before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) five times, charged with unfair labor practices, being acquitted in four of them. With regard to the strike in Hillsdale, NLRB Regional Director Jerome H. Brooks said that Essex Wire management “takes a very hard and inflexible position concerning the obligation to bargain with its employees ….” 

The stage was set for a real brouhaha. 

On Feb. 29, 1964, the strike emphatically began. The UE, led by Field Representative Ted Nolan, set up a “field headquarters unit” in a mobile trailer across the street from the plant. Among other acts of violence, non-strikers who came to work were harassed, fires were started in front of the plant, a truck driver trying to get into the plant was beaten, and a picket was hit by a car as he and others tried to stop it from leaving. On their part, Essex Wire was prepared to keep turning out magnet wire for its customers. Frank Gallucci, Essex vice president and general counsel, vowed that the plant would continue to operate “indefinitely and on a permanent basis without [the strikers].” Non-striking workers (some of whom continued to work throughout the strike), supervisory personnel and laid-off Essex Wire workers continued to work. Gallucci also advertised for new workers, some of whom were black.

National Guardsmen moving west from Savarino's parking lot disperse workers.

National Guardsmen moving west from Savarino's parking lot disperse workers.

The presence of several black men was deeply upsetting to the uniformly white citizenry of Hillsdale County. It appeared to be yet another taunt from the Essex management, this one more subtle. By the time the new black employees arrived at the plant, spectators to the show had taken sides. As the strike—and the violence—continued, it wasn’t uncommon that a fight would erupt involving pickets, sympathetic onlookers and company personnel. 

 And where were the police during all of this? Mayor C. Audrey Paul had directed them to be visible but not to make any arrests. The inability of the administration of the City of Hillsdale to understand the gravity of the strike at Essex Wire was later met with astonishment by the state Labor Mediation Board when it was finally brought in to facilitate an end to the strike. The danger certainly was clear to 100 wives of the strikers who visited the mayor at City Hall to beg for active assistance from the police. Mayor Paul assured them that there were enough city and state police to protect both the strikers and the plant. He felt that arrests would only provoke more active hostility. 

 Essex, playing to the court of public opinion, took out an ad in the Hillsdale Daily News ridiculing the violence and lawlessness that was allowed at the plant. They then hired 28 armed guards to protect the plant against property damage and to escort workers and management into and out of the plant. Their success in keeping their buyers supplied with wire became the equivalent of a win over the union. On their part, the strikers were determined to bring the plant to a halt until their grievances were met. The appearance of hired guards at the plant, armed with guns and cameras to document the actions of the strikers, was like waving a red flag before a bull. As well as the strikers, community members were increasingly upset.

Young ladies from the neighborhood are ignored by the Guardsmen on duty.

Young ladies from the neighborhood are ignored by the Guardsmen on duty.

The conflict expanded to the state with pleas by Essex Wireofficials to Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelly to send state police to protect the factory and personnel. It was rejected. But on April 16, Gov. George Romney ordered the state police to “Keep a watchful eye on the situation.” The conflict on the ground was widened to a subtle second level that more resembled a mind game. Essex Wire mused out loud that it might not be able to remain in Hillsdale, which would have a serious economic impact on the city. On the union’s part, on April 22 it made an “unconditional, unequivocal” offer to return to work—with the understanding that all the former workers would return to work at Essex. Essex Wire had adopted as its mantra that “management has the right to manage.” They had no desire to welcome back into their fold the men who had made things so difficult for them. Both sides stood firm and, of course, the strike continued.

In frustration that Essex Wire was able to continue production using non-strikers—and therefore win the war so far—the strikers escalated their violence. In addition to a bomb being set off in the plant and attacks on cars and trucks bringing non-striking workers, incidents began to occur beyond the Essex plant. On May 7 in the village of Pulaski, unknown assailants attacked a convoy of non-strikers and armed guard escorts on their way home to Jackson. Then 15 masked men broke into the city power plant and tried to force the three employees there to shut off electricity to the Essex factory. They left peacefully when they were told that power would be cut to the entire city if that was done. The community became more deeply involved, mostly in support of the strikers. An Ad Hoc Citizens’ Committee on Industrial Relations was formed to attempt to reduce tensions. 

The 7 p.m. shift change provided an “after-dinner show,” and often 200 to 300 people hurried over to the plant to see what was going on. On May 26 a non-striker hit the car of UE Vice President Jack Bowditch. Bowditch “approached” the non-striker’s car and was slashed in the face. Two non-strikers were arrested, and the spectators turned into a mob worthy of the Old West. They gathered at the jail where the non-strikers had been taken, dispersing only when George Gould, the UE president, convinced them to do so. About midnight the arrested men were released and started home toward Jackson with two armed guard escorts, who happened to be black. The race of the guards inflamed an already volatile situation. They were followed by part of the mob and forced off the road in Jonesville. The guards were both attacked and one was shot. The assailants weren’t strikers, but simply community members, brothers Angelo and Joseph LoPresto.

That did it. Hillsdale Mayor Paul asked Gov. Romney to declare martial law and send in the National Guard. On May 28, Romney proclaimed a “state of public emergency,” banned all firearms in the city, evicted the armed guards from the plant, limited public gatherings to less than five people and, most importantly, ordered Essex to shut down operations. He ordered the union and Essex to meet with the state Labor Mediation Board and himself in Lansing. It was actually the first win for the union because Essex finally had an incentive to bargain. Essex, however, maintained that Romney’s action in closing the plant was illegal.

Then, inexplicably, after a visit toHillsdale on June 2, Romney permitted the plant to reopen and protected it under heavy military and police guard. Negotiations broke down, but the state Labor Mediation Board pressed on, criticizing the union for its picket line violence. It was more deeply critical of Essex Wire, saying, “The company has not bargained in good faith and has not made a genuine attempt to reach a settlement.” The statement concluded that the company exerted unfair labor practices and “refused to accept any responsibility for what happened.” This statement was affirmed when Essex Wire released a professionally prepared booklet the day after the strike ended that portrayed the company as the victim of irrational, violent workers and a governor who broke the law to shut it down. 

After Gould convinced skeptical union members to do so, the union accepted the settlement that had been reached with Essex Wire. Most important to them, all the strikers would be taken back, although the 15 men fired for alleged misconduct on the picket line would be hired last. On June 9 the strike was over.

The strike was a manifestation of the powerlessness the workers at Essex Wire felt, which may have reflected the despair of many people in Hillsdale County who found themselves on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. The Ad Hoc Citizens’ Committee on Industrial Relations, which interviewed those involved in the strike, kept hearing complaints that Essex Wire held all the cards, and suggested that the strike might have symbolized a “social upheaval.” Workers, who felt used by the company, reached a tipping point. Their escalating violence, fueled by a mob mentality, was inexcusable, even if it can be understood. The loyalty of Essex Wire to its shareholders and to maintaining a good profit margin is understandable also. Perhaps the intensity of the clash between the two sides was inevitable.

JoAnne P. Miller