Marble Minutes: Balance of Power

February 18th, 2011

By Cathy Miglorie

The utopian days of the early Proctor family reign came to halt with the passing of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. The act gave workers across the United States the right to organize among themselves and negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment.

The industrial workers of Vermont Marble Co. saw in the N.L.R.A. an act of liberation and translated it immediately into a united surge toward unionization.

The Vermont Marble Co. strike, while not as violent as others that erupted across the nation, was significant in other ways. It represented the clash between the ruling class and their workers—class conflict—that was sweeping the nation.

Author Georges Seldes, of Windsor, in his 1937 book “You Can’t Do That” describes how workers committed economic treason when they chose to unite against their employers. In a personal anecdote, he relates how, as a reporter, he investigated the strike himself.

“Said the local representative of the Rutland Herald to me,“If you are still a good reporter you ought not to make up your mind until you hear both sides of the story. You ought to see Mr. X (mentioning the name of the man representing law and order). Mr. X is a square guy.”

“I agreed. We rode down to Mr. X’s house but did not find him in. So to kill time I decided on a haircut. When I came into the shop, the barber was just polishing off a customer, and I will take an oath that the following is the exact transcription of the conversation, since I wrote it down that very minute:

Barber (to customer, who is leaving): ‘Well, how’re things up at Proctor?’ (Proctor is also one of the towns of the Vermont Marble Co.)

Customer: ‘Quiet. They’ve stopped picketing.’

Barber: ‘How’s it going to come out?’

Customer: ‘They’ve broken off negotiations.’

I: ‘Who, the Proctors?’

Customer: ‘No, the men. (Angrily) We ought to ship the whole gang of them out, get rid of them, send them back where they belong . . . ‘

I: ‘But people have the right to strike, haven’t they?’

Customer: ‘It’s the damn reds. Coming up here to Vermont and trying to tell US how to run our country.’

(In a fury the customer slams out of the shop.)

I : ‘Who was that?’

Barber: ‘That’s Mr. X. He’s sore as hell at those liter’y folks from New York buttin’ in favoring the workmen. Foreigners have no right to butt in. If the New Yorkers hadn’t sent food and money the Proctors would have broke the men in no time.’”

Among American capitalists, the Proctor family was considered as belonging to the enlightened, paternal and more intelligent minority: they were fair and honorable employers of the old school.

Seldes said, “At least, they have always fostered that impression by subsidizing churches, building a hospital, contributing to many charities — and incidentally shutting the mouth of considerable criticism. The moment I mentioned the marble strike to anyone in Vermont the inevitable answer was, ‘The Proctors are good people, they are noted for their charities,’ and none saw any relationship between gifts of a hundred thousand dollars and — after deductions for rent, light, etc., (company services) — pay checks of twenty cents a week.

“The Proctors have always referred to ‘our workmen’ in much the same way liberal Southerners in old times referred to ‘my Negroes,’ and it was a shock, which they will never forget to have ‘our workmen’ organize regular unions and refuse to join the company union which the Proctors tried to impose, or accept an announced pension plan which, the Proctors said, would make the old age of every skilled marble worker peaceful, serene, free from financial care, near heaven on earth.”

Unionization was treason. The Proctors, like other great American the great industrialists, were chagrined and angered. “Our workmen” were biting the hand that fed them.

“A company that never missed a dividend and never paid a living wage’ — so one of the ministers of the gospel in one of the Proctor towns referred to the Vermont Marble Co., immediately adding: ‘But please do not use my name. The Proctors, who control everything in this part of the state, the press, the banks, the members of the legislature, are also powerful in the church.”

The strike was also significant in that writers, artists and other professional men — leaders of the intellectual minority — used it as a platform to preach social reform. Women intellectuals led the way, trying to protect the women and children of the strikers. Poet Genevieve Taggard, from East Jamaica, Vermont wrote about her “working class sisters” and served on the United Committee to Aid Vermont Marble Workers. The committee, which held public hearings in Rutland, included poets, professors, students, clergymen, and journalists— the “damn reds” referred to by Mr. X in Seldes’ anecdote.

As a committee member, Taggard was tasked with confronting Vermont Marble officials. However, she was stonewalled in her attempts to reach Redfield Proctor Jr., Mr. Williams the company treasurer, and Frank Partridge. Mr. Proctor was “out of town,” Mr. Williams “had no desire to be called to the phone” and Mr. Partridge had nothing to say to a member of “this delegation” nor did he think would anyone else.

The committee held a public meeting on Feb. 29, 1936, in West Rutland. Although the company bosses were invited, none chose to attend. The committee took testimony on the hopelessness and hunger endured by the families of striking workers. A women testifying, Mrs. Mereau, took the stand with baby in arm, saying that at first the union provided somewhat for them, but the state did not give the aid that they were supposed to give the poor. “We have enough potatoes for the children tonight. None for tomorrow.”

Another of the striker’s wives, Mrs. Bujak, said she could no longer send her children to school because she had had no warm clothing for them. When she went to the Overseer of the Poor, who was also a marble company official, to request relief, she was told that she was not eligible because she owned her own home.

By July 1936, the marble bosses prevailed and the strike was broken. A new era was ushered in. Corporate America was born.

Marble Minutes: Founding father

February 11th, 2011

By Cathy Miglorie

Redfield Proctor did not live to see his company and his town torn apart by the strike of 1936. He died in 1908, leaving what he thought was a legacy of benevolence and a bright future for Vermont Marble Co.

Proctor followed industry best practices of the time as he set up his business. After the Civil War, it was common for skilled craftsmen to handcraft products from start to finish and, more often than not, they worked alongside the business owner. Proctor was a well-known figure at the quarries and the shops, working next to his men.

As the marble company grew, the nature of labor changed. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing. The company started using new, mass production methods to fulfill the demand for pure Vermont marble. Workers became responsible for only a small part of the process, performing one specific task repeatedly. These jobs required little skill and Proctor wooed immigrants, who were willing to work for low wages, to live and work in his town.

While factories across America became impersonal environments where the pace of work was set by the capabilities of the machines, Proctor continued to be a fair and equitable boss. The standard of living in Proctor was well above the nation’s norm.

James B. Morrow, a writer for the Washington Post, wrote a story about Proctor on, coincidentally, the very afternoon of Proctor’s death. The story is an intimate portrait of the very human and kindly man that `Proctor was during his long life.

Morrow begins by describing Proctor’s public persona:

“From the Senate galleries, Redfield Proctor seemed to be a very solemn and practical man. He was solemn and he was practical. At the same time, he was unobtrusively but tremendously energetic, while his sagacity had become proverbial. He had done much for the workingmen at his marble quarries and recently he completed a tuberculosis hospital and made liberal provisions for its support. Therefore, he was also benevolent. Although he was a millionaire, and, with his sons, controlled the marble business of the United States, he was a plain man, lived quietly in a Washington apartment during the winter and fished most of the time during the summer. Never spectacular, rarely heard in debate, he was one of the potential men of the Senate.”

Answering questions, Proctor, in his own words, modestly described his early life and his path to success.

“Were you a poor boy?” Morrow asked.

“I wasn’t poor, he replied, “but I did plenty of hard work on our farm, which was on the outskirts of the village of Proctorsville. My father died when I was 8 years old. I went to Dartmouth College. When my eldest brother died, I returned to my mother and ran the farm and helped to manage her affairs. I also studied law, going to a school in Albany, NY. After the Civil War, I thought some of leaving home and settling elsewhere, but as I had served in several Vermont Regiments and two brigades and had comrades all over the state. I gave up the idea.

“I practiced law for a couple of years with a partner, but my active life in the army made sitting in a chair irksome. Besides, I had to take cases in which I didn’t much believe. So I quit, telling my partner I should leave my desk in the office and do all I could for him, but that I didn’t want any share of the results. I owned some wild land and in that way got into the edge of the marble business. After investing all the money I had and borrowed all I could and then ran my face to the limit. I began work with 60 men. We now employ 3,500. I bought the quarry in 1870, obtained more land from time to time and now our company owns 6,000 acres and operates 20 modern quarries.”

“What kind of marble do you produce?”

“White, light blue and tinted. It is used in cemeteries and for the interior decoration of houses and large buildings. Our shipments amounted to 8,000 carloads last year and were valued at $3,500,000. Our payroll is $130,000 a month. Marble is slowly cut with toothless saws and sand mixed with trickling water, just as was done by the ancients. Marble for floors, wainscoting and pillars is cut and fitted at our factories, according to plans, and all the builders have to do when they receive it is put it together. Our carvers are Italians.”

“Are many of your workers foreign?”

“Yes; and they live in little communities in the village of Proctor. The Greek Catholics, Hungarians and Catholics, Swedish Congregationalists and Lutherans have churches of their own. There is also a Union Church, built of marble, which is attended by English-speaking persons, and where Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Christians, Disciples and Catholics worship together without ecclesiastical differences. They have no trouble and are out of debt.

“We have a free public library of 6,000 volumes, a village hall where sessions of the high school are held and a hospital. Injured men are treated without charge at the hospital. Those who go there when ill may pay $4 a week if they feel that they can afford to do so, but no money is expected from married men or for the members of their families. We have nurses who go into the homes of our employees. Their services are always free. Our hospital building is new in every respect.”

“Do many of your men own their own homes?”

“Some of them do. We sell them land at a very low price if they want to build or we rent them houses on the basis of a percent of the cost. Proctor has a water system and electric lights for its 2,500 inhabitants and is a well-kept and up-to-date little town.”

However, with 3,500 men in its employ, it was natural that the social reform movement of the early 1900s would would bring unrest to Vermont Marble Co. Basic labor issues, which lay dormant for many years under Proctor’s kindly hand, came into focus. Men wanted an eight-hour workday, higher wages, better and safer working conditions, and the right of workers to organize.