Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Hildo September 2023: Union Town

Toledo has several nicknames. “The Glass City.” “Home of the Jeep.” And of course, the old moniker originally intended to poke fun at Toledo’s location in the middle of the Great Black Swamp, “Frogtown.”

A more accurate nickname, though, would be “Union Town.” Because the history of the organized labor movement in this country is largely written by the history of the labor movement right here in Toledo.

RELATED: Celebrating Labor Day 2023

Take the building trades. The Toledo labor organization now called IBEW Local 8 was one of the original nine organizers of the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers way back in 1891 at a meeting in St. Louis. It was chartered NBEW Local 8 a month later, and became Local 8 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in 1899.

UA Local 50, the Toledo Plumbers and Pipefitters union, traces its history back to 1890. And SMART Local 33, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers union, traces its roots back to an organizing meeting held in January 1888 right here in Toledo. The seven organizations who met that day formed the Tin, Sheet Iron and Cornice Workers’ International Association. The Toledo local was offered the distinction of being Local 1, but instead numbers were drawn from a hat, and the Toledo local drew Local 6. After several name changes and mergers, the current SMART Local 33 emerged.

Or take the Teamsters. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters was formed at an organizing meeting in 1903 in Niagara Falls, New York. One of the original chartered members? Of course, Local 20, Toledo, Ohio.

The Toledo Federation of Teachers was chartered in 1933, a rare union of public employee professionals. But nothing about labor organizing is truly rare in Toledo. Not only are the teachers, substitute teachers and paraprofessionals in Toledo Public Schools organized. So is every member of support staff, from bus drivers to cafeteria workers and building operators to secretaries. Even school administrators have their own union.

The same is true of City of Toledo employees. Road workers and street sweepers, sewer workers and grass cutters, all union. So are police officers, including command officers. Not only are firefighters organized, so is everyone in the fire department, all the way up to deputy chiefs.

Migrant farm workers are organized by Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee. FLOC was formed in 1967 and formally organized as a labor union in 1979. It organized the infamous Campbell Soup Boycott to support members on the picket line. In the 1980s and beyond, FLOC negotiated unique three-party labor agreements among the corporations, the growers contracted by the corporation, and the workers hired by the growers. FLOC has gone on to organize pickle and tobacco workers.

The history of labor in the auto industry cannot be told without one of the seminal events of labor uprising, the Auto-Lite strike of 1934. Workers at Auto-Lite and several other automotive-related factories in Toledo secretly formed Automobile Workers Federal Union Local 18384 to organize for better pay and working conditions. This led to a series of strikes in the spring of 1934. An injunction limited pickets to twenty-five workers, but thousands of members of the Lucas County Unemployed League showed up to support the pickets. The National Guard was deployed, and “The Battle of Chestnut Hill” raged on Chestnut Street near the factory. At the end, two workers were dead and dozens more were injured.

Under threat of a general strike, the company capitulated and workers won union recognition and a negotiated contract. That victory was instrumental in the founding of the United Automobile Workers in 1935, with the Toledo workers chartered as UAW Local 12. The original location of the factory at Champlain and Elm Streets is now dedicated as Union Memorial Park. 

These are just a few of many milestones in national labor history with roots in Toledo. Steel workers, meat cutters, bakers, iron workers, hotel workers, longshoremen and many more from Toledo’s laboring class have written national history through their struggles here at home. Fifty years after the Auto-Lite strike, thousands of workers at AP Parts walked the picket line for 285 days to demand better pay and benefits. Through violence and deprivation, the workers persevered.

That’s the history of labor in Toledo. Perseverance. The long struggle for dignity on the job. That’s what we celebrate on Labor Day here in Union Town.

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