So it is Labor Day and what does that mean except the end of summer. Also, potato salad and ball games; hopefully a parade with floats and bands; and most certainly lots of politicians.
But these are merely the wrappings and trappings that decorate the true intent of Labor Day, which is quite simple: honoring the dignity of labor.
So everybody gets the day off, and Labor Unions get to take a bow. It’s a good opportunity to take a look at what Unions have meant to Mansfield, and what a particular Mansfield union meant to the nation in 1937.
Parade of Time
The first official Labor Day celebration in Mansfield took place in 1901, and it was well-timed in some respects, because that was the year when the city’s Labor Unions first bound together into the Mansfield Trade Council.
There were plenty of unions before then, and we know that because there had already been a number of hotly contested labor strikes in the city in the 1890s: at the Aultman & Taylor Company, the Eclipse Stove works and at the Humphryes plant. When the Trade Council formed, it bound together the influence of 18 different smaller unions into one significant political bloc, providing them all with a common meeting hall and neutral negotiation space.
Groups with such divergent vocations as Streetcar Drivers, Bar Tenders, Brick Layers, Cigar Rollers, Typesetters, and Brewery Workers, as well as all kinds of unskilled laborers who couldn’t apply to the American Federation of Labor, had the opportunity to be of support to one another beneath the banner of the Council.
At its beginning in 1901, this Trade Council represented the voices of 2,500 blue collars in Mansfield: which at that time was nearly half of the voting population of the city. They spoke as one voice to Congress about significant issues that were caused to change over the next generations, like Child Labor Laws and the Forty-Hour Work Week.
And naturally, every local politician courted the Council’s endorsement by riding in their Labor Day parade.
For the next three decades, the Trade Council was an integral part of the city, especially through the years of the Great Depression. But American political and labor dynamics underwent a major metamorphosis during WWII, and by mid-century the Trade Council was superseded by a new balance of power.
It was in the years after the Council ended when the Unions really started making news in Mansfield.
Parade of Headlines
When everything was running smoothly, there was not a lot of Labor News to write about: Union Hall entertainment, turkey dinners on holidays, and kids’ shows. No news meant the quiet, well-oiled machinery of Labor & Management was doing its work. The headlines came and history was inked into newspaper columns when these gears became misaligned and the engine sputtered. Then production slowed or stopped.
To the common news reporter, that’s when the story got interesting. It meant lots of ink about strikes and picket lines and lockouts and walkouts and wildcats and scabs.
Mansfield got lots of that kind of ink in the decades following WWII.
Throughout most of the 20thcentury Mansfield had the reputation of being a “Union Town.” Depending on which side of the Labor/Management divide you were standing, that could be a good thing or not.
Traditionally, the term “Union Town” meant trouble. In a Union Town there was going to be strife: strikes, layoffs, shutdowns. Often very angry; sometimes violent.
Being a Union Town during the age when factories ruled the north end of Mansfield meant it was not hard to find a job. It meant wages were pretty decent.
It also meant new industries were wary of coming here.
To the common worker on the line, it meant there was hope for equitable wages and hours and benefits, and time worth the effort spent.
These benefits didn’t come without lots of ink.
Our Union Legacy
It is fitting that Mansfield’s powerful union reputation should lead to a national landmark in American labor relations.
It is the kind of labor news that makes history but not necessarily headlines.
It happened in the 1930s when the Great Depression was wearing down industries across the nation, and factories were going dark like someone pulled the plug.
The city’s steel mill—at that time called Empire Sheet and Tin Plate Company—was walking a dangerous tightrope: business was critically weak in 1937, and 1,700 jobs hung in the balance. Fortunately, the leader of the union was a thoughtful man and a very creative thinker.
His name was Joe Scanlon, and he had been pushed to the front of Local #169 because his qualities were obvious to everyone in the union. He was already well recognized throughout the greater community as a boxing referee, and already widely admired because of his clearly evident strong ethic of fair play and honest equal treatment.
As the representative head of the Steel Mill’s union, Joe actually talked his union brothers into taking a cut in pay. By accepting this proposal, the plant was able to stay open so they kept their jobs. The wages they were not getting were being pumped back into the industry so that the workers became, in effect, co-owners of the business; and as Capitalists investing in this Mansfield organization, they were entitled to receive dividends later on when the mill and the economy got back on track.
It was a brilliant plan. Today they call it Profit-sharing.
It’s not like the idea didn’t exist before Joe Scanlon, but he was the one who fit it together with all the various parts it needed to make it universally workable. Today, all across the US, where it is still adopted by corporations, it is called the Scanlon Plan.
Mansfield was the fertile ground from which this idea grew, and it is a tribute as well to the Steel Workers of Local #169 who were willing to walk out on that visionary limb with Joe Scanlon, setting precedent not only for the community, but seeding a new paradigm in US labor relations.
Take some time to join Mansfielders in 1937 at the Labor Day parade on Park Avenue; speeches at the bandstand in Central Park; and sporting events at North Lake Park. You’ll have to bring your own potato salad.
Labor Day 1937 footage by Harry DeLaney.
As projectionist at the Ohio Theater, he showed hundreds of newsreels from around the world and he believed Mansfield was equally deserving of its own moment on the big screen.
In this documentary, behind the microphone are: Mayor Earl McFarland; Trades Council representative Donald Creps; Atty George Biddle introducing Mrs. Cornelia Pinchot, a famous suffragist and labor activist.
Photos and memorabilia from the collections of Mark Hertzler, Sherman Room of the Mansfield/Richland County Public Library, Richland County Chapter Ohio Genealogical Society, and the North Central Ohio Industrial Museum.