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On June 7, 1937, Lansing’s labor force took a holiday. Thousands of strikers and their supporters crowded Lansing City Hall, the Michigan state capitol and many surrounding areas. Union on-call picketers, known as “flying squadrons,” arrived from out of town to assist with the protest. Cars and trucks were parked to block streets, and stores closed in support. Seventy-fives year later, the Lansing Labor Holiday remains a remarkable example of nonviolent protest.
The famous Flint Sit Down Strike ended in February 1937. Other instances of labor unrest followed (For more on this state of affairs, click Strikes of 1937.). In Lansing, REO Motor Company workers implemented a successful strike in March. These results encouraged Lansing’s United Auto Workers local and its leader, Lester Washburn. The union began organizing strikes at smaller companies. Among them was the Capital City Wrecking Company. Workers began a strike there on May 21, 1937.
On June 1, an Ingham County Circuit Court judge granted an injunction. Strikers were to cease interference with Capital City Wrecking Company Operations. The strikers largely ignored the order. Ingham County Sheriff Allan MacDonald felt pressure to act.
Sheriff MacDonald decided to execute arrest warrants. Hoping to avoid violence, he acted at night. Around 2:00 a.m. on Monday, June 7, he cut Lester Washburn’s phone lines and raided several houses. Eight people, including Washburn’s wife, were arrested.
Washburn himself was not home. About one half hour later, he returned from a trip to Detroit. He found his phone line cut and his children home without their mother. From a public phone, he called union representatives to a special meeting. At the meeting, the union men called for a worker holiday in protest of the arrests. They issued a statement and worked quickly to spread the word.
A General Strike
What resulted was a general strike, or something close to it. A general strike occurs when workers from all industries within one geographic area refuse to perform their duties. Such strikes are rare in United States history, making the Lansing Labor Holiday somewhat unique. In Lansing’s case, the strikers enjoyed popular support. The sheriff’s middle-of-the-nights arrests no doubt contributed to this support, as did the fact that the strikers had limited goals. Strikers called for the release of the recently-arrested prisoners and a resolution to the Capital City Wrecking Company strike.
Governor Frank Murphy had been in Detroit when the protest broke out. He arrived later, by car. Murphy, a liberal Democrat, was largely considered a friend of labor, and he had already negotiated several strike settlements that year. At 2:30 p.m., he addressed the crowd. He promised to call a conference among local authorities, strikers and the prosecuting attorney. After a series of meetings, Murphy announced an agreement on the prisoners’ releases and the beginnings of negotiations on the Capital City Wrecking Company strike. In the early afternoon, three of the prisoners were released on a bond of $200 each. Not long after 5:00 p.m., the remaining five prisoners were released on bail, pending a trial. The crowd finally dispersed.
Battle of East Lansing
Events played out differently in East Lansing. Sometime in the afternoon, protestors journeyed there to close stores, as they had done in Lansing. They met resistance from students at Michigan State College (later named Michigan State University). Students lifted some cars of the strikers and turned them back toward Lansing. When some strikers refused to leave, students dunked them in the Red Cedar River! Pro-union forces returned later with reinforcements, but they found even more students waiting for them. Once again, some strikers found themselves in the Red Cedar River. The incident – later called “the Battle of East Lansing” – essentially concluded the Lansing Labor Holiday.
“The Lansing Labor Holiday” by Albert A. Blum and Ira Spar. Michigan History, Vol. 44 (March 1965), pp. 1-11.
“The Day the City Stood Still: The Story of the Lansing Labor Holiday” by Lawrence Cosentino City Pulse (Lansing, Michigan), August 29, 2007, pp. 9-12
“The City Shut Down: Lansing’s Labor Holiday” History Explorer (Published by the Historical Society of Greater Lansing), September 2011, pp. 2-5.