First labor strike with Maytag in 30 years

First labor strike with Maytag in 30 years
Date June 11, 2004
Section(s) Local News


NDN Staff

Union workers stood waiting outside Maytag‘s appliance plant along North 19th Avenue on Thursday afternoon while gray, brooding clouds loomed ominously overhead. At 4 p.m., they grabbed their picket signs and walked to the gate just as the clouds burst, pelting Newton with a driving rain.

Maytag plant workers were on strike.

The gloomy weather epitomizes the mood of the town as city leaders and residents alike worry about the situation at Maytag and what it means for the community.

Lately, it would seem, when it rains it pours. The strike comes less than a week after Maytag announced a restructuring move to cut 1,100 salaried workers. Already people have been laid off at the corporate headquarters here, although company officials still decline to give exact numbers.

Some Newton residents have said they fear Maytag will move its Newton plant to Mexico, just as it did with the Galesberg, Ill., plant and news of the strike did little to ease those fears.

But residents and union members can take comfort in the fact that this has happened before: in 1974, 1971 and 1938. And while those strikes had their share of tense moments, the sides eventually came together to reach a resolution.

Strikes of 1974 and 1971

The most recent strike, almost 30 years ago to the day, lasted just one day. The union called the strike on June 1, 1974, and reached a tentative agreement on a contract the next day.

At that time, the union and company settled on a 3 percent wage increase per year, pensions after 30 years regardless of age, continuation of unlimited cost of living allowance, increased shift premiums, a new dental plan and improved benefits for those already retired, and improvements in the major medical insurance program, life insurance and sickness coverage.

The strike of 1971 lasted longer than a day, continuing for almost five months while negotiators fought over a number of issues, including wages.

Union members worked under an expired contract for about 11 weeks before going on strike Jan. 22, 1971. Approximately 2,700 workers at both the Newton and Hampton plants walked off their jobs.

Maytag‘s chief negotiator at the time, Michael P. Mullen, said in the Daily News that at the time of the strike, there were 200 union demands unsolved.

“In addition to making economic demands we can’t possibly meet, the union still wants to eliminate programs we feel are necessary for efficient operation and insists on becoming involved in basic management decision areas,” he said.

He went on to say, “the union continues to demand an economic settlement patterned after the recent automotive settlements, completely disregarding the fact that we cannot meet these costs and continue to be competitive in the major appliance industry. While we continue to hope for agreement, it must be one that continues to permit our management to manage this business and do it efficiently, and one that does not price us right out of the appliance market.”

Charles Gifford, president of the local UAW, responded by saying the company made a “take it or leave it” offer that ignored agreements on cost of living wage increases reached in 1967.

“Our union did not go to the bargaining table looking for a fight; rather we went in search of justice and equity. The company’s approach to negotiations, however, may leave no alternative but to fight,” he said.

A company spokesperson called Maytag‘s initial offer the largest in its history, while Gifford referred to the offer as one of the lowest in recent years.

As the strike dragged on, it began to take its toll. Maytag initially retained 1,100 management, supervisory and clerical employees while the union workers were on strike but wound up laying off 300 of those employees in April and May.

Workers remained on strike until June 16, when the union members, meeting at the high school, voted to approve a new contract.

The Daily News reported terms of the contract included a 13 percent raise the first year and 3 percent raises for the second and third year of the contract. It also included a cost of living provision that became unlimited after a year, the 30-and-out retirement program, an insurance program with continuation of Blue Cross coverage, a prescription drug program and a total of 12 paid holidays. Members also received retroactive pay of 26 cents for each hour worked or paid from the time of the old contract expiration date to when they went on strike.

The day the strike ended Newton Mayor Tom Hill said, “Everyone in Newton is happy the strike has come to an end. It seemed like a long season to us.” He said he was proud of the fact that there was no violence. “Maybe it was the caliber of our people which held down the violence.”

Strike of 1938

While reports of violence in ’71 may have been minimal, the strike of 1938 was a different story.

The summer of ’38 was possibly one of the most stressful periods in the history of the community. A three-month-long Maytag worker strike at that time featured street fighting, violence, arrests and plenty of bad blood between the company and union. Ultimately, the governor of Iowa had to mediate the bargaining to bring the situation under control.

According to old issues of the Daily News, the union contract expired May 1 of 1938 and the strike began May 9 after union members balked at company proposals to cut hourly pay by 10 percent.

At that time, workers were making 50 cents an hour and wanted an increase to 62.5 cents an hour. Other disagreements included closed shop provisions, vacations with pay and changes to the seniority system.

Upon arrival to work on May 9, employees found that a notice had been posted saying all hourly and piece work employees would be working at a 10 percent wage cut. Union officials met with company officials and said they would continue to work, but only under the terms and conditions of the previous contract.

When discussions over terms broke down, the company asked all employees that were not going to work to leave the plant. Pickets immediately formed at the gates. An employee who attempted to cross the picket line the next day was attacked.

The country was still in the throes of a depression, and the union relief fund was quickly exhausted for the 1,400 workers at the plant.

In June, strikers surrounded members of the Jasper County Board of Supervisors in the courthouse and demanded county relief funds, not allowing the supervisors to leave the building until their demand was met. The supervisors relented and $2 vouchers were given.

By June 8, a back-to-work movement began. The effort caused discord among strikers and laborers who wanted to work, resulting in several arrests. Sporadic acts of violence continued. Mayor Frank Woodrow resigned his office on June 21 due to ill health and “worry” over the tense situation in Newton.

On June 23, 350 strikers reportedly barricaded themselves inside the Maytag plant, saying they would remain in the buildings until a labor agreement was reached. There was talk of bringing in the National Guard and Maytag refused to negotiate while the plant was being held.

Then Iowa Gov. Nelson G. Kraschel became involved, acting as a mediator. He demanded that the strikers remove themselves from the Maytag plant and called for them to return to work.

On July 6, 200 non-union men attempted to gain access to the plant but were turned away by picketers. Several of the leading union organizers were arrested on grand jury indictments, including kidnapping and assault charges, and the former city attorney, acting as mayor, called for 1,000 volunteers to become deputies to help keep law and order in Newton.

About 500 non-union workers successfully entered the plant and started operations on July 18.

Work continued until two days later when National Guard troops rolled into Newton as Gov. Kraschel imposed a state of martial law in the community. Immediately after troops arrived, 500 to 600 workers were involved in 45 minutes of street fighting outside the plant gates.

The 250 guardsmen quelled the disturbance, and the governor ordered the plant closed until an agreement could be reached.

On July 26, E.H. Maytag, president of the company, requested the governor to allow the plant to reopen. He refused. National Labor Relations Board hearings were under way in the Hotel Maytag over the union’s grievance of unfair labor practices.

The governor stopped the federal labor board from holding hearings while the city was under martial law, creating a state versus federal authority situation. On Aug. 3, Maytag offered a counter proposal to workers including binding arbitration.

Union members rejected the offer but agreed to return to work until an agreement could be reached. On Aug. 4, the plant reopened with 900 employees entering the gates. The next day, 1,400 workers were at the factory while contract talks continued. Finally, on Aug. 19, martial law was lifted in Newton and troops left the city.


One Response to “First labor strike with Maytag in 30 years”

  1. Barbara Barclay Says:

    Could you please tell me if Mr. F.L. or E.H. Maytag owned a ranch in Grants New Mexico?

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