In honor of Labor Day, which according to the Dept. of Labor webpage is “a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers,” I thought it might be worthwhile to reprint this article from the Yazoo Sentinel, August 25, 1904. Most of us don’t think Mississippi has much of a history of organized labor, but the construction trades have much more of a tradition of organization, whether in the old guilds or in modern unions, and that’s true even in our supposedly non-union state. To set the stage, Yazoo City suffered a devastating fire in May 1904, destroying its downtown almost completely and a number of residential blocks too. As with Katrina, architects, engineers, contractors, carpenters, masons, and anyone else in the construction industry who could, got on a train and headed in to catch a piece of the action. Also as with Katrina, construction costs skyrocketed, and tensions rose, and locals could only stand by and wring their hands. This article gives a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the construction industry at the time. I hope you have the day off so you can take time to read this little gem.
Threatened Strike in Yazoo Building Circles
Carpenters’ District Council Make Demands on Contractors, Which Latter Refuse
Hardly a day has passed since the fire that there has not been rumors of a proposed strike among the carpenters or brick-layers.
As an evidence of the fact that these rumors are not without foundation, a demand was made on the contractors last week, which the latter peremptorily refused, and the indications now are that the differences between the contractors and the carpenters will be brought to a head in the next few weeks. As there seems to be no disposition on the part of either side to yield its point, the inevitable result will be a strike.
Following is a copy of the agreement which the Carpenters’ District Council presented to the contractors for signature:
“We, the undersigned contractors of Yazoo City, Miss., agree to conform to the trade rules and by-laws of the Carpenters’ District Council of Yazoo City, Miss., and the members of said Union agree as a body to make no further demands for higher wages or shorter hours for a term of six months.”
The above was presented to the Builders’ Exchange of Yazoo City, composed of all the local contractors, and the matter was considered by them at a special meeting Firday evening. After full consideration and discussion of the matter, the demand was unanimously refused, and the following reply sent to the Carpenters’ Union:
“Resolved, That at a meeting of the Builders’ Exchange of Yazoo City, we decline to sign the agreement this day presented by the Carpenters Union, Signed, W.O. Glass, Chairman.”
This was handed to the Carpenters’ Union Friday evening, and the matter was brought up for consideration by the Union at its regular meeting Monday night. The matter was discussed, but it was decided to give the question further consideration before any definite action was taken, and upon motion, action was deferred until the next regular meeting.
Mr. J.A. Smith, Secretary of the District Council, was seen yesterday morning by a SENTINEL man, and asked what would be the result of the action of the contractors in refusing to sign the proposed agreement. He replied that another similar demand would be made on the contractors in the near future, and if they again declined, it would mean that the Union men would all walk out. He was asked if he desired to be quoted on this, and replied that he did. That the Union thought the demand was a reasonable one, and that unless the contractors yielded to their demands, there would be nothing else for them to do but to strike. He also added that the Union was making no fight on the local contractors, as nearly all of them were now working under the Union rules, but that several outside contractors had come into Yazoo City since the fire, and were running open shops, and that these “outsiders” were the ones they were after.
There are in Yazoo City about 265 Union carpenters and about fifty non-union men working at the bysiness. The wages run from $2.25 to $3.50 per day of nine hours. Most of the local contractors work union men exclusively, while several of them run what is known as an “open shop.” That is, they employ both union and non-union men, though the union does not permit their members to work for any contractor who does not employ union men exclusively.
There has been a good deal of talk about a strike among the brick-layers. Shortly after the fire, an organizer for the Bricklayers’ Union came to Yazoo City and organized about half of the men employed here. Since that time, there has been a good deal of talk of demands for increased pay, and the contractors were notified last week that an increase would be expected the following week. The wages paid now are 50 to 60 cents per hour, and it is understood that a demand will be made for an increase to 62 1-2 cents per hour. Most of the contractors say they will not pay more than the present scale, while one contractor states that he began yesterday to pay his best men 62 1-2c, as he could not get them for less.
A good deal of interest is being felt in the matter throughout the city, because of the fact that many buildings have not yet been contracted for, and even where bids have been turned in, the prices asked are so high as to be prohibitive. A brick building that could have been built a year ago for $3,000 will cost nearly twice that amount now, and much complaint is made by property holders that they cannot afford to build on the present basis. The contractors say that these figures are based on the present price of material and labor, and that of course they must make their bids accordingly.
The result has been that several persons who had contemplated building, have abandoned the idea indefinitely, and the effect is to materially delay the rebuilding of the burned district until conditions assume a normal price.
The outcome of the threatened trouble between the contractors and their men is being watched with much general interest, and the hope is universal that an open rupture may be avoided.