Earl Cars: Better Looking—Better Built - Page 2
Just a few weeks later, however, employees let management know the cost-sharing scheme was insufficient. On May 5, 1919, 7500 employees (2/3 of all employees) left a half-hour early. The next day the company locked them out, and a strike was declared, the auto industry's first major strike. Besides the shorter work week, workers also demanded a minimum wage of 40 cents an hour (an increase of 10-25 cents over what they were being paid) and equal pay for women. While the company agreed to the minimum for men over 21, all others would be paid only 30 cents an hour.
As labor unrest grew, the company, lacking a security force, closed its doors. Some workers commuting by streetcar were made to get off — unless they could show a Chevrolet work badge. Willys-Overland hired strike breakers and housed them on company grounds. Toledo's mayor Cornell Schreiber began meeting with management and labor to resolve the wage issues but despite four full days of negotiations, on May 14, negotiations broke down. Even as negotiations had been ongoing, though, Willys-Overland had fired a union official. They also began hiring women to replace striking men. The company reopened on May 26 for a brief time, again closing its doors on June 3 when it could not maintain order.
On May 30, the mayor hired 200 "emergency policemen" to help local police in their efforts. By and large, these were recently discharged WWI soldiers untrained as civilian peacekeepers. In time, the number of emergency policemen would increase to 700. The mayor also tried to enlist Governor James M. Cox to send out the National Guard but the Governor was unconvinced of the need. As strikers advanced towards the plant on several occasions, mounted policemen rode towards them, pushing them back. Company guards fixed bayonets to prevent strikers from getting closer. Most strikers, in the face of such opposition, gave up and retreated from the plant building.
As the strike continued, however, tempers flared, with local businesses taking out newspaper ads decrying the strike and likening strikers to Bolshevik revolutionaries. There followed a number of rock-throwing incidents, arrests, and beatings. On one occasion, a mob marched to the police station, intent on obtaining the release of two union members arrested earlier that day. They were unsuccessful.
However, on the night of June 3, in Lagrinka, a Polish neighborhood in South Toledo, a group of several thousand strikers and supporters cornered one of the "emergency policemen" out for a night with his girl, forcing them inside a fire station. An alarm went out and six carloads of policemen arrived on the scene, ordering the crowd back from the building. Other "emergency policemen" arrived on the scene. A riot ensued, with crowd members throwing stones and bricks and policemen firing teargas and bullets into the crowd. At least eleven were wounded and two were killed. Earl ordered the plant closed, saying he would not open it until it was safe to do so.
Judge John M. Killitts of U. S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio issued a temporary injunction against the strikers. With that injunction, Judge Killits's involvement in the strike deepened. He controlled the guards and "emergency policemen" hired to keep order. Insisting on regular reports and strict discipline, he established order. He demanded peaceful picketing and set restrictions on the number of pickets and the number of plant exits in use. Initially he restricted the number of picketers to 200 but after some unruly behavior, further limited their number to 50. As the number of picketers was reduced, the judge also reduced the number of policemen on site. On June 7, the judge ordered that only U.S. citizens could picket. On June 10, 25 Secret Service agents were sent to Toledo to enforce the judge's order. The following day another 25 arrived, the judge increasing the number as needed to restore order. They were not only to function as guards but also were authorized to attend worker meetings and report to the court. They knew the information they gleaned could be used, as well, to deport undesirable non-citizens.
The basis for a permanent injunction against the workers came after Dail-Overland Co. of Greensboro, North Carolina sued Willys-Overland, the Auto Trades Council, the Machinists Union, and others, claiming it had an agreement with Willys-Overland for delivery of a certain number of cars. The strike prevented delivery. Dail-Overland had sold out of its May allotment, was quickly running out of parts and supplies, and received no deliveries in June. Thus, their business was adversely affected. Citing the Clayton Act, a 1914 amendment to the Sherman Antitrust Act which prohibited a number of actions impeding free market competition, Judge Killitts sided with business and demanded that workers return to work and that they cease any interference with company operations.
The Willys News, the Willys-Overland employee newsletter, of June 20, 1919, directed striking employees to return to work or lose their jobs to others. Earl said, "Our wages are equal to, or higher, than wages of any competing automobile plant. They involve raises for more than 12,200 jobs and reductions for none. It is reasonable to conclude that for some reason unknown to us, some of our employees may prefer to work elsewhere, regardless of rates. These employees must understand that they have a perfect right to follow their desire in this matter. In fairness to themselves, however, they should make this decision now and act accordingly."
Willys-Overland continued its insistence on a 48-hour week, noting that in nearby factories union men were working 50-55 hour weeks. The company also agreed to equal pay for women — so long as they were performing work ordinarily done by men. By mid-July the company had resumed normal operations. But in August, facing a continuing downward financial spiral, Earl laid off 2500 employees, describing them as "surplus" labor. Instead of the 180,000 cars they'd planned to produce in 1919, Willys-Overland built only 94,000 cars that year.
Prices were lowered and sales volume increased but it was not enough to stave off an enormous financial setback. A national, post-war depression in 1920 only made matters worse. People were struggling, and they weren't buying many cars. Willys owed about 130 banks more than a hundred million dollars. New York banker creditors, led by Chase Manhattan, were extremely nervous about getting their money back so they hired Walter P. Chrysler, recently retired from Buick, as their agent to manage Willys-Overland. He negotiated a two-year contract with them, at a salary of $1 million per year — and no promises as to what he could accomplish. As soon as he was on board in January 1920 as executive vice president and general manager, he halved John Willys's salary (from $150,000 to $75,000) and fired Clarence Earl. Whether Earl was a poor manager or just ill-equipped to handle a major strike, he had been viewed as incompetent. In Chrysler's time with Willys-Overland he managed to reduce debt from $48 million to $18 million. He did so by eliminating excess production capacity, selling unneeded equipment, cutting the office work force, canceling commitments to parts suppliers, etc. Working with the trio of Zeler-Skelton-Breer Engineering, he also developed and sold a new car model, the Chrysler Six. Chrysler Motor Co. had been established as a separate division of Willys. After failing in an attempt to wrest the company from Willys, however, Chrysler left for Maxwell. Maxwell was another auto manufacturer he had begun working to save just six months after starting with Willys-Overland — after he had secured John Willys's blessing to do so.
After the firing from Willys-Overland, Earl landed on his feet, being elected president of the Briscoe Motor Corporation on March 29, 1921. Briscoe traced its start to the late 1880's when its founder Benjamin Briscoe owned a company that produced sheet metal products, among them radiators and fenders for the new car industry. About 1903, Briscoe was doing well enough to lend $3500 to struggling car maker David Buick, in exchange for a 97% interest in the business. That same year Jonathan D. Maxwell, who understood mechanical engineering, convinced Briscoe to leave Buick and team up with him instead. Over the next five years the Maxwell-Briscoe Company produced two-cylinder runabouts and larger 4-cylinder cars. The company did well, by 1909 becoming America's third strongest-selling marque.