Reminisce: ‘There were no winners:’ Remembering the Westinghouse strike

After enduring war-time wage controls and restrictive labor laws passed in the aftermath of World War II in answer to a rash of work stoppages, workers at many Lima plants were ready for action, never more so than in the mid-1950s.

“Wildcat strikes (those unauthorized by the union) were very popular at Superior Coach and Ex-Cell-O,” according the 1976 county history. In 1954 alone, Ex-Cell-O had 25 wildcat strikes, leading a union representative to quip that “if a worker had to leave the plant early, the union and company had to be careful that other workers did not see him leaving the shop and assume another walkout was beginning.”

Another walkout did occur Ex-Cell-O in September 1955 as 1,000 workers at the plant on Buckeye Road went on strike, bringing the number of Lima workers on strike to about 4,000 in mid-September 1955, according to The Lima News. In addition to Ex-Cell-O, the total included 18 employees at Lima Truck & Storage Co. on East Wayne Street, 14 driver-salesmen and plant workers at the Coca-Cola bottling works on North Shore Drive, and 200 employees at Gro-Cord Rubber on North Jackson Street, 200 employees had walked off their jobs.

But of all the strikes, a walkout by some 2,100 members of the International Union of Electrical Workers at the South Dixie Highway plant of Westinghouse Electric would be the most rancorous. The strike, The Lima News judged in a story on March 21, 1956, had been like a war.

“In strikes, as in wars, it usually appears that nobody really ‘wins,’” The Lima News wrote March 21, 1956, the day after the strike was settled. “Substantial concessions were made by both management and the union. Now both sides can start running final totals on both gains and losses.”

The Westinghouse walkout in Lima was part of a nationwide strike, with about 44,000 union members walking off their jobs at 29 Westinghouse plants on Oct. 17, 1955, less than a month after a week-long strike in September was settled.

Lima Westinghouse officials told The Lima News on Oct. 17, 1955, that “there was no violence, but that a solid mass of pickets in front of the entrances prevented them from entering the plant. Union officials said plant guards, power plant employees, two nurses and a doctor were permitted to enter the plant.”

As the strike played out over the late autumn of 1955 and the long, gray winter that followed, both sides would plead their cases in court, at Lima City Council meetings and before the public via large ads in The Lima News. A union ad proclaimed: “Westinghouse Bosses Make Disastrous Mistakes … So They Try to Make the Employees Pay for Them.” A company ad, noting the union had agreed on a contract with General Electric on terms like what Westinghouse was offering, asked: “Why Did IUE Settle With Our Principal Competitor and Strike Westinghouse?”

In late January 1956, children of striking union members appeared on the picket line at the plant toting signs with comments like: “Don’t Cut Daddy’s Pay,” “Don’t Overload My Mommy’s Job,” and “My Sister Need New Shoes.” A union spokesman told The Lima News the demonstration was to counter company assertions the strike was losing popularity with wives and families.

The picket line was no place for children in early February as some employees attempted to return to work. “Seven hundred massed pickets repelled efforts by sheriffs and police to keep Westinghouse plant gates open here this morning in a melee which resulted in several minor injuries,” The Lima News wrote on Feb. 4, 1956, adding that an appeal from Allen County Sheriff Clay T. Cotterman for National Guards help had been rejected. “One automobile containing would-be workers was overturned and windows of other cars were smashed,” the newspaper wrote. “Only about 50 automobiles penetrated the picket lines before strikers augmented by hundreds of persons from other plants, closed in, pushing officers back across the driveway and out into U.S. Route 25.”

In the wake of the melee, the union contended Westinghouse had brought in paid strikebreakers and the company announced intentions to seek a court order limiting the number of pickets. Within days, a limit of two pickets was placed on the union. A rival independent union was formed at the local plant during the strike, but the IUE would remain the recognized bargaining unit.

Violence thought to be related to the strike had already spread into the community by the time of the trouble at the picket line, most notably on Dec. 27, 1955. “Two police officers have been assigned full time to the search for vandals who yesterday wrecked the interior of the Reese Ave. home of a couple who had returned to work at the struck Westinghouse plant,” The Lima News reported on Dec. 28, 1955. “Describing the vandalism as a ‘dirty, cowardly trick,’ Police Chief Donald F. Miller assigned Sgt. Ronald Cook and Detective Robert Clemens to the investigation.” A second returned worker’s home was vandalized, though less severely, the same day, The Lima News noted.

A union spokesman told The Lima News he doubted union members were involved, saying, “certainly we are not going to do anything to make martyrs out of back-to-work people and make ourselves look like goons.” No one was ever charged for the vandalism.

On Feb. 14, 1956, some 350 strikers showed up at a city council meeting as union representatives argued the plant should be closed. Council, to the dismay of the jeering strikers, simply urged both sides to continue negotiations, the News reported.

By Feb. 26, 1952, the strike was entering its fifth month and was hurting the pocketbooks of both employees and the company, according to a report in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The newspaper estimated workers in the Westinghouse plants involved had lost “upward of $72,000,000” while the losses to local merchants would take months to compute. A Plain Dealer story two days later noted the strike by more than 47,000 workers affected about 235,000 people when workers’ families were included. “For the wives that has meant no regular allowance for the feeding of their children and the upkeep of their homes,” the newspaper wrote.

A contract settlement was reached March 20, 1956, but even before then, according to local Westinghouse officials, workers had been trickling back to their jobs. Employment had topped the 1,000-mark on March 19, they said. “Westinghouse first proposed a ‘work while we negotiate’ plan Nov. 29 and the actual back to work movement began Dec. 3, with employment topping the 500-mark Jan. 20, according to company figures,” The Lima News reported March 20, 1956.

The Lima News, which had recently been purchased by Freedom Newspapers, weighed in editorially March 22, 1956. “All our readers know there were no winners; those who made the statements are equally aware that all were losers. Today hundreds of Lima residents, and thousands throughout America, will return to work to earn money to pay off debts which have piled up,” the News wrote, concluding, “We only know that it has been proved once again that no one wins a strike.”

Within a year, The Lima News was embroiled in labor troubles of its own, which led to the July 1, 1957, founding of the rival Lima Citizen.