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.