Despite a largely positive review, there was a hint of looming discontent in the January 1946 Fortune magazine article about the Collins Company, (About Town, March 30, 2011). And it would ultimately be the shortest interview in the article, the one with long-time employee and union President George Soucy, that would prove prophetic.
Soucy spoke frankly to the Fortune reporter, about the need to increase pay and decrease hours for the difficult work performed in the factory. He wasn’t alone in his demands for change. Labor unions all over the U.S., which had agreed not to strike during the war years, were ready to do so now.
In January 1946, 750,000 United Steel Workers went on strike; 358 of those CIO Steel Workers were at the Collins Company. Their union, Local 2244, began their strike on Jan. 14, 1946. Work at the plant would not resume until April 15, 1946.
The strikers were in production and maintenance. The foreman, his assistant, and Collins Company clerical staff did not participate, and were permitted to cross the picket lines to enter the factory. There was never any reported violence during the strike and negotiations were both ongoing and apparently respectful throughout the process.
In a Jan. 17, 1946, article in the Farmington Valley Herald, it was reported that, “the union is rumored to be seeking a $2 per day increase in pay, in line with the national steel workers objective.”
The Collins Company sent, at least, two letters to strikers, compelling them to consider the damage their work stoppage was doing to the Company’s ability to remain viable in a competitive market. They also asked that strikers consider the impact their actions were having on the community.
An excerpt from a letter dated Feb. 21, 1946:
We feel that we ought to acquaint you with some aspects of the situation which are of grave concern to you, to the welfare of all the other people in this community, and to us.
Since January 14, 1946, our plant has been closed. You have been idle, and our customers have been deprived of the tools which they so desperately need.
You have lost in wages approximately $120,000, an amount which is equivalent to an annual wage increase of 12 cents per hour. You have also lost a wage increase of 10 per cent, which was offered you through your representative.
The Company wrote about lost productivity and concerns over their failure to deliver products to customers. The loss of goodwill, they argued, could negatively impact future employment at the plant.
What we cannot produce, our foreign competitors will produce and you will never collect the wages for that production.
Then the Company made it personal:
The differences between you and this Company cannot be settled in Pittsburgh and Washington. They must be settled in Collinsville and they can be settled while the factory is operating and you are at work. Sincerely Yours, The Collins Company.
On the ninth week of the strike, the company followed up with another note to employees:
Is there anything to be gained which will out-weigh the loss? Here are some of the facts:
1. Employees have lost in wages about $180,000
2. Our customers have not received from us 50,000 dozen of machetes and axes
3. The town, the people, the merchants are deprived of their normal income.
What is the present situation? When are we going back to work?
The company went on to reiterate two proposed wage increases: the first for 10 percent (which was apparently rejected), and a second for 13 percent, (which was apparently still on the table).
They also expressed concern that anything above 13 percent would make the company uncompetitive in the foreign markets, which accounted for 80 percent of their sales. Then they asked employees to come back, with one important condition:
We are anxious to start producing again, but only on the condition that we will be able to make and sell our tools at a fair profit. It is up to you to decide when we start up the plant. Yours Truly, The Collins Company.
Eleven weeks into the strike, on March 28, 1946, the Farmington Valley Herald reported on, “rumors” that the union had voted to reject the 13 percent wage increase, despite complaints from workers making, “no bones about stating that they feel the pinch,” of their lost incomes.
On April 11, 1946, 13 weeks into the strike, there was a notice in the Herald announcing a, “mass meeting, Saturday, April 13 at 2:30 p.m. at Turner’s Hall, Torrington Ave., Collinsville.” On the union agenda: a discussion of the “comprehensive report on the Collinsville strike.” All members were “urgently requested,” to attend. Two hundred of the 358 strikers did. They unanimously accepted the settlement terms offered by the Collins Company.
Several hundred members of the union paraded around the Collinsville Green upon confirmation of the signed agreement. Union members were back to work on April 15, 1946. And the plant, it was reported, was back to full production by the week’s end.
The terms of agreement, effective April 15, 1946, through May 1, 1947, were as follows:
There would be a wage increase of 18 cents per hour for all employees; ½ cent less than the union had demanded. And, the new agreement offered an enhanced vacation plan, which ranged from 40 hours of vacation pay for employees with one year of service, up to 80 hours for employees with five years of service or more.
There was also a new stipulation in the contract on how future grievances would be handled: “…. arbitration shall be the terminal point of grievance procedure.”
While the Farmington Valley Herald had avoided taking sides during the strike, once the new contract was signed, it printed an Op-Ed piece that made their position clear:
It was a costly affair to everyone in the township of Canton – costly to the township as a whole, costly to the company involved, costly to local merchants – and costliest of all to the men who remained idle for a fourth of one entire year.”
The Herald asked strikers to consider who profited from the strike, because in their view clearly the workers had not:
It is just possible that the only persons to gain by this strike as certainly was the case in two similar situations in other sections of the country, were the union leaders under whose needling the action was taken.
Before you disagree with this consider that it will require some two full years of work at the increased ratal of $.18 per hour granted, to earn back wages lost during the strike period.
It has been said that the strike at the Collins Company was the beginning of the end for the factory, in this country anyway. Nevertheless, 65 years ago today striking employees went back to their jobs and a sense of normalcy returned to town.
The flood of 1955 was yet to come.
Here’s the Deal
Thanks to Bill Volovski, who encouraged About Town to look up information on the strike, and to Mary Ellen Cosker, who assisted in the archival search.
Canton Historical Museum; 11 Front St., Collinsville. 860-693-2793: www.cantonmuseum.org.