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Nash 1939: Strikes and union-busting give way to peace

As 1939 opened, some 8,000 employees riveted, bolted and welded along the lines, turning out between 1,800 and 1,900 Nash and Lafayettes a week, happy Nash officials told the press on February 8. The factories were working at full capacity. Freshly restyled Kelvinator lines appeared in January.

1939 nash ambassador

On the 15th, all 1,650 employees at Kelvinator laid down their tools and refused work or to leave the plant because a group supervisor was not a union member. The situation was resolved in a single day and everybody went back to work.

Nash-Kelvinator teamed up with Equitable Life and Prudential Insurance on January 25 to offer group life insurance to employees, with no need for physical exams. The company paid a good portion of the premiums.

On February 22, the Kenosha Evening News cited an article in Steel, a trade magazine, reporting that Nash was about to produce a light, four-cylinder car that would sell in the $600 price range. The article in the newspaper read, “layouts of equipment and parts are being considered at Kenosha at the moment and it is reported that a number of engines have been assembled.”

The story went on to say that since Governor LaFollette had lost the election to Julius Heil, Charles Nash was no longer considering moving its manufacturing operations to Detroit. It further quoted the magazine with a report that Charles Nash was rumored to be liquidating some of his stocks and that his son-in-law, Hascall Bliss, had resigned from the company.

1939 lafayette

W.A. Blees, the new General Sales Manager for Nash Motors, told the press on March 10 that Nash had climbed to be the fourth largest automobile producer in the country, behind General Motors, Chrysler (then number two), and Ford.

Blees announced a huge, two-month advertising campaign across 1,700 newspapers and a “heavy concentration on national magazines.” The Nash theme for spring emphasized the fun of driving. He told the press, “Despite currently unsettled world affairs, there has been no evidence of any decline in our business this year.” Sharing the headline, “Nash Business Near Boom-Time as Drive is on” was “World Peace Threat Seen in (Albanian) Invasion” and “Fast Flying Italian Troops Enter Tirana, (King) Zog in Greece.” 1

Surprisingly, as the company was shifting into top gear, Nash-Kelvinator was dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average on March 14. Just as automobiles had replaced railroads as the darling stock of investors on the vaunted index, Nash was jettisoned for high-flying United Technologies, the parent company of United Airlines.

1939 nash car

President Roosevelt presented a network of national highways designed for domestic defense. The system was comprised of five east-west routes and seven that ran from north to south. New super highways could only mean more sales of Nash and LaFayette cars. 2

Studebaker unveiled its economy car, the pretty and thrifty Champion, at only $660. Nash officials watched with close interest and sealed lips; their own economy champ inched closer to production with each passing day.

On June 21, George Mason, Nash-Kelvinator’s president, was awarded the prestigious Howard G. Ford trophy for outstanding business achievement at the National Salesmen’s Crusade in Philadelphia. Mason’s campaign, “Sales Mean Jobs” had been judged the outstanding selling and sales management event of 1938.

Hitler and Stalin signed a ten-year non-aggression pact; soldiers of the Third Reich invaded Poland at the crack of dawn on September 1. On September 3, Britain and France came to Poland’s defense by declaring war on Germany. Canada’s Parliament declared war against the Axis powers on Sept 10.

1939 pr

Bendix employees in South Bend, Indiana went back to work after settling a strike on Sunday night the 10th of September. That was good news for Nash. The company had been forced to shut down the plants on Thursday night when brake inventory had dwindled to nothing. Officials noted that a new Nash car was rolling off the line every 75 seconds. 5

The 1940 Nash and LaFayette car lines bowed to the public on September 15. Having introduced new body styles in 1939, there were only minor changes in the eighteen models being offered this year. The horizontal bars running down the center of the grille were narrower and more closely spaced. The catwalk grew larger and was squared off. New to the industry and Nash as well, were sealed beam headlights.

Great attention was paid to upgrading “interior beauty.” Increased sound deadening and operation of the state-of-the-art Conditioned Air System that Nash had pioneered was simplified with new controls.

Prices ranged from $795 for the modest LaFayette six-cylinder, two-door, three-passenger coupe to $1,295 for the luxurious Nash Ambassador, eight-cylinder, two-door Cabriolet.

Some 1,500 Nash workers met on Friday the 22nd at the Moose Hall and mandated their officers to pursue a new contract with the company. This time, the union wanted what the rest of the industry was getting: a minimum starting wage of 75 cents an hour, a week’s holiday with pay, and a guaranteed work week of at least 24 hours. Negotiations started out at the Hotel Dayton with Works Manager Ray DeVlieg representing management, but then Leo Mann, the corporation’s lawyer, arrived from Detroit and took his place, unexpectedly. An ill wind swept across the proceedings. Mann had a reputation as a union breaker. Negotiations came to a standstill and then broke off.

1939 car adOn Saturday the 30th, at 10:00 AM, more than 2,500 workers gathered together at the Eagles Club to vote. The men voted in favor of striking against Nash by a margin of seven to one. The union issued a statement that read in part, “It is admitted that there was progress made in the negotiations with the management when R.A. DeVlieg, General Works Manager, directly participated in the conferences and only then was there a genuine discussion of our common problems.” The statement underscored the fact that “Mann’s adverse attitude toward the union had seriously hampered the progress of the negotiations.”

Nash countered with a statement of its own. It read in part, “There was absolutely no reason for a strike at the Kenosha plant of Nash-Kelvinator. Management officials and leaders of the Kenosha Local 72 have been negotiating since Tuesday morning on a written contract which if consummated would have assured employment uninterrupted by labor difficulties during the remainder of the 1940 model year.... These negotiations were proceeding smoothly and at 11 PM Friday the contract was about two-thirds completed, with management and union fairly agreed on points covered.”

The communiqué added that Mann was sitting in the meetings only in an advisory capacity and not conducting the meetings. Nash’s statement concluded, “Both the company and the workers are robbed of an opportunity to make a hit in the automobile marker-to really establish Nash as a volume car makers this year. The statement concluded with the notice that DeVlieg was still bargaining on behalf of the company, should union wish to come back to the table. 6

Both statements were printed side-by-side on the front page of the Kenosha Evening News. The paper would continue to do this throughout the strike.

Fearing the worst, Nash officials hurriedly advised more than 300 suppliers to withhold shipments of parts and stock late on Sunday night.

Strike or not, the fiscal year ended on September 30. Nash-Kelvinator showed a loss of $1,573,524 on sales of $72,534,000. It was a much better finish than 1938 when losses had been $7.6 million. An examination of the books showed that the corporation only lost money in the first quarter of 1939. The economy was definitely improving. The stockholders’ annual reported noted, “Sales (of Nash cars) in European countries involved in the war or in the restricted area have not been a significant percentage of our business.”

Kelvinator activities told a far different story. “The foreign business done by the division, of course, has been affected by exchange difficulties.” Kelvinator in the UK was no longer manufacturing appliances, but was gearing up for war production. The British firm was a wholly owned by Kelvinator of Canada, Limited; because the British market for appliances had dried up, the Canadian company’s profits were only $51,535, compared to $143,025 in 1938.

Back in Kenosha, both union and labor returned to the negotiation table on Monday, but only briefly. Dissatisfied union representatives walked away from the table. Almost immediately, 3,500 men assembled to man the picket lines. It was estimated that $15,000 a day in wages were being lost.

weather eye 1939

Watchmen and power plant employees were issued special permits and allowed to enter the premises. Picketers were also under orders not to harass office workers as they went to work.

A union statement allowed that Nash had met its demand for a 75-cent minimum wage for unskilled workers but said that Local 72 was obliged to break off negotiating when Nash demanded that it have the right to discharge all elderly workers or anyone deemed “physically unfit for a good day’s work.” Nash countered with a reply that it had no such intention, and that currently on payroll were 248 factory employees over the age of 60, 33 more who were over the age of 70 and one employee on staff who was 86 years of age. 7

Meetings continued, followed by a flurry of daily communiqués from both sides. This prompted a quick-witted reporter at the Kenosha Evening News to dub the fray as “The Battle of the Statements.” Committees were set up to study various clauses of the proposals that would form the next working agreement.

The company suddenly demanded that the union purge itself of radical elements who had allegedly sabotaged new cars awaiting shipment. Outraged union officials demanded proof of the alleged acts.

Officials at Local 72 issued a statement on the 3rd. The union communiqué described “a mysterious Mr. Tobin, whom we have not yet been able to meet, has been directing the company propaganda from his temporary headquarters in the Dayton Hotel. Knowing little about this community, the imported propaganda staff of the Nash Company has resorted to the usual strike-breaking formula of labeling the elected officers of a responsible organization as ‘radicals.’ ... We say frankly that if the new management had followed the reasonable policies of Mr. Charles W. Nash, this deadlock would never have occurred. Mr. Nash knew this community and had displayed his interest in it. We could talk to him as one Kenoshan to another.

“The outside management refuses to abide by a common sense policy in labor relations, or to conform with the sprit of the federal laws. So that its president, Mr. George W. Mason, may draw a salary of $237,000 a year-$4,558 a week-and other insiders, similar salaries, it tries to whittle down our small wages.”

The statement addressed the charge that Nash management had accused employees with sabotage. The union pointed out that never in the history of the company had such a thing happened and that management had never once reported such a thing. The statement read that workers wanted a raise to 75 cents an hour in order to make $18 a week. It was compared to Mason’s weekly income of $4,558 a week. While workers spent their money in Kenosha, it was pointed out that Mr. Mason, who lived in Detroit, did not.

A delegation from UAW Local 206, representing the workers at the Kelvinator plant in Grand Rapids, arrived in Kenosha to discuss the situation. They brought news that the 1,600 workers at Kelvinator had voted to walk in support of their union brothers in Kenosha, if asked to do so.

Nash and UAW Local 72 did not meet, but the battle of statements continued to clash headlong in the press. The union claimed that the company was guilty of making misleading statements when it included a letter along with their paychecks to employees outlining its position. 9 Designed to sow discord among union members, the letter read, “Enclosed is your pay check for the week ending Friday, September 29, 1939. We regret that you will not receive a pay check for the present week, as you properly should be working this week while negotiations on the working contract are going on, just as you were working last week while the company and the union were negotiating. There are rumors going around that the company was asking for a clause in the contract which would cause the discharge of workers over 45 years of age. This is absolutely untrue.”

The letter disclosed company losses. “It was a sad day for all when they declared this uncalled-for strike which is depriving you of your paychecks which total more than $25,000 a day or $125,000 a working week. This is a tremendous price to pay for a needless strike.” 10

It was the union’s turn. Its statement read in part:

The company complains about our insistence upon a 75-cent minimum for these elderly workers. They are now employed as watchmen, etc., and receive 70 cents an hour. By the company’s own figures there are about 60 such men. What would a 75-cent minimum for these elderly workers cost the company? If these men are working a full 40 hours a week, the cost would be $2 per man, or a total of about $120.

The salary of George W. Mason was $237,000 for the last year as reported to the Securities Exchange Commission. This represents a weekly income of $4,558. Will Mr. Mason do with $120 a week less out of his $4,558 so that this point may be quickly cleared up? 11

The two sides met all day Friday at the Hotel Dayton without any apparent advancement in the talks. Adjourning at five o’clock. No announcement was made for a next meeting; both sides claimed they had a backlog of “other work that required their attention.” 12

Unlike his predecessor, who had always kept Nash Motors a good arm’s length away, newly elected Governor Julius P. Heil waded knee-deep into the fray. At George Mason’s personal invitation, the governor offered his personal services as a mediator between the two sides. He made the trek to Kenosha and waited all weekend for a response. 13 George Mason and three assistants flew into Kenosha on Saturday morning.

More than 3,000 workers gathered at six o’clock on Monday morning to picket the plant. The lead marcher carried an American flag and marched around the complex. There were so many workers that the single-file parade was virtually nose-to-tail. The newspaper reported that the protest was peaceful and that the men were good-natured. 14

The parade ended at three o’clock and the workers gathered to discuss the company’s latest offer. The company then sent out a second letter to the strikers in the afternoon mail. It outlined the situation to date and revealed that the deadlock hinged on the union’s refusal to agree not to intimidate or coerce employees to join the local. Nash pledged that if both sides would agree to a truce, “negotiations would continue every day until everything is agreed upon—no one could be hurt by a truce.” Both letters were signed, General Works Manager, R.A. DeVlieg. 15

The union would not accept a truce because it felt that sending letters to the workers had been an attempt to weaken and break the union. Union executives’ statement read, “It has become evident to us that the company tactics were designed to undermine and destroy our organization. The negotiations we have had with the management, this policy has been continued, despite their honeyed words to the public.”

Further, the union demanded that the company agree to recognize the principles of collective bargaining. The union statement further reiterated that “imported propaganda,” alluding to the disseminations from the Kelvinator people who had come from Detroit, continued to attempt to divide and conquer by presenting one story to the public and an entirely different one to the negotiating team. 16

Both sides were under the gun to resolve the situation. Nash cars had been selling like hotcakes on Shrove Tuesday until the strike and the Nash nameplate was actually in a position to become the fourth best selling automobile in the country, just as the Nash company was the fourth largest.

Workers at Seaman’s in Milwaukee were denied unemployment insurance from the state. The board ruled that Seaman’s Body Corporation was no longer a separate corporate entity, having been absorbed into Nash-Kelvinator. The 625 workers affected by the strike were out of luck. To compound the matter, DeVlieg took the position that Kenosha and Milwaukee were a single manufacturing establishment and “one can not operate while the other is closed.” That decision would throw all 2,800 workers in Milwaukee out of work. 17

Negotiations continued at the Hotel Dayton but with little success. DeVlieg lost his temper, pounded the table, shouted angrily, and paced the floor. Cody, representing the union, was just as heated; vowing that any non-union men sent into the factory would be carried out on stretchers. Management walked out of the meetings at 3:30 declaring an impasse. 18

A concerned Chamber of Commerce sent an open letter to both union and management on Monday morning the 16th, asking that the facts of the dispute be laid before the public. It offered its services to mediate. Nash responded with a statement that negotiations were deadlocked on four points.

  1. That the union refused to agree to not intimidate or coerce employees.

  2. That the union refused to recognize that employee discipline was a management function.

  3. That the union refused to recognize that overtime (payable at time and a half) was unavoidable

  4. The demand that workers be given vacation time with pay.

The union letter was short and to the point. If they stopped the strike now they would return to “the intolerable conditions of 1932 and 1933 when there was no seniority, when the boss laid you off or discharged you at his whim, when you had no choice except to take the low wages the company chose to offer, and when there was no union.” The statement was clear that there would be no more negotiations until the company “will agree in writing to complete recognition of your union and a far method of collective bargaining.” 19

Another mass rally was staged at the plant between six and seven in the morning. The police got involved when striking employees successfully blocked a truck loaded with parts that was attempting to leave the gate at Fifty-Second Street and Twenty-Sixth Avenue. After two hours, the frustrated driver unloaded the truck and once empty of its load, the truck was allowed through. Negotiations at the Hotel Dayton ground to a halt at 3:30. 20

On Tuesday morning, 3,300 men encircled the plant again. They would picket permanently. DeVlieg sent a third letter to the workers and responded to the Chamber of Commerce’s request for its position.

The Battle of Statements escalated as the union responded to Nash’s four points. It would not work with non-union members. It would not allow management to discipline workers. Overtime was unacceptable as long as there were hundreds of laid off men walking the streets waiting to be recalled to work. Paid vacations were in line with the rest of the automobile industry and industries in Kenosha.

Surprisingly, a fifth sticking point was revealed for the first time. Management was now insistent that employees negotiate with their bosses, not the union. The strike ground on.

Wednesday at 10:00, management and union sat down to the negotiating table again. This time they were joined by a highly skilled negotiator, Ed Hall, a representative of the international UAWA union, and William Armstrong, a Vice President of Nash-Kelvinator. Union members were buoyed by the fact that Armstrong had returned. They preferred dealing with him than with the corporate lawyer, Leo Mann, who openly disdained the union. 21

A twelve-hour marathon session on Thursday led to a breakthrough. Seeing eye-to-eye, the two parties shook hands. Nash-Kelvinator was represented by R. A. De Vlieg, General Works Manager; Harry D. Beutlick, Personnel Director; Frank M. Beauregard, Superintendent of the Kenosha plant and Ropy Lelivelt, the Assistant Personnel Director. For the Union, representatives were Edward Hall, the international union representative, William Cody, member of the international executive board and the fifteen members of the Local 72 Executive Council.

All witnessed as the historic document was signed at two o’clock in the morning. An extra edition of the Kenosha Evening News was printed; its headline screamed down the front, for a full third of a page: “Reach Agreement on Nash Strike Settlement.” The news spread faster than fog could roll through town off Lake Michigan. 23

Union members gathered in the Eagles’ ballroom on Friday. The hall was so full that an “amplifying system” had to be set up so those outside the ballroom could hear the proceedings. The terms were read out, clause-by-clause and explained in detail by union officials so that there would be no misunderstanding.

Men now earned 75 cents an hour and women 65 cents. The UAW was the sole bargaining agent for the workers. The minimum workweek was fixed at 24 hours. Laid off workers would be called back to work before anyone was offered overtime pay. Workers who might be called to serve the United States during times of war would maintain their jobs and their seniority. No married woman would be hired if she had any other “visible means of support,” though the company and the union will decide together upon “any special, deserving case.” Workers agreed not to strike during the time the agreement was in force unless the termination was given in writing thirty days in advance. There was no week’s paid vacation, that demand was dropped for another day. 24

It was a good deal for the union and a good deal for Nash, too. The men ratified the contract unanimously. Management had learned that union busting was not wise. It was a one-year, renewable contract but it was foresighted enough to bring labor peace to the House of Nash for more than a dozen years.

The manufacture of 6,000 cars had been lost during the three-week strike, but the factories began to hum once again on Monday the 23rd. The first shipment of bodies left Milwaukee for Kenosha at three o’clock in the morning. 25

The company could pat itself on the back a little on November 24, when the Nash instrument panel received the Modern Plastics Award for being the most distinctive automobile instrument panel of the year. The artful styling and careful attention to detail provided “a focal point for the beauty of the interior as a whole.” The news release said, “A segment of the plastic, Tenite, gives a fourth dimensional effect to the panel and at the same time permits the characters in the translucent plastic and spraying the identity from the inside in colors. The steering wheel, which is cited in the award, is in rich, oyster-white Tenite and is lightly ribbed to provide a firm comfortable grip.”

Nash set a new sales record for the month of November, delivering 5,425 units, compared to only 2,276 units in November of 1938. W.A. Blees told the press, “sales were uniformly strong in all parts of the country, with many dealers reporting the best November business since 1929.” 28

On December 20, the 1,500 workers across town at American Brass got the Christmas present that Nash employees had been denied: a week’s paid vacation starting June 1, 1940.

End Notes: Chapter Three

  1. Kenosha Evening News, April 8, 1939

  2. Ibid, April 29, 1939

  3. Ibid, May 4, 1939

  4. Ibid, July 5, 1939

  5. Ibid, September 11, 1939

  6. Ibid, September 30, 1939

  7. Ibid, October 2, 1939

  8. Ibid, October 3, 1939

  9. Ibid, October 6, 1939

10.Ibid. October 6, 1939

11. Ibid. October 5, 1939

12.Ibid, October 7, 1939

13.Ibid, October 8, 1939

14.Ibid, October 10, 1939

15.Ibid, October 10, 1939

16.Ibid, October 11, 1939

17.Ibid, October 11, 1939

18.Ibid, October 17, 1939

19.Ibid, October 16, 1939

20. Ibid, October 16 and 17, 1939

21.Ibid, October 18, 1939

22.Ibid, October 18, 1939

23.Ibid, October 19, 1939

24.Ibid, October 21, 1939

25.Ibid, October 23, 1939

28.Ibid, December 8, 1939

Also see: Series Contents, Nash Motors, Nash engines, Nash Metropolitan, Jeffery, AMC, the Nash Car Club of America

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