The Sprague Electric strike, 1970
In 1970, more than 2,000 blue- and white-collar workers in North Adams engaged in a militant 10-week strike against the Sprague Electric Company. Sprague had dominated employment in the northern Berkshires since World War II and had never before faced such a lengthy strike. For much of its history in North Adams, beginning in 1930, the capacitor company held the upper hand in dealing with its weak labor unions, leaving the workforce low-paid and ill-protected on the shop floor.
But in the late 1960s, a younger, more savvy, and activist workforce, including many former G.I.s, voted in new national unions affiliated with the largest U.S. labor organization, the AFL-CIO. In 1966 production workers voted to join the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE). The decision to join a national union did not come without a struggle, but by the mid-1960s, the momentum for change and greater employee power could not be stopped.
As one woman stated at a 1966 union meeting, "the people were afraid 30 years ago, but they aren't now." Walter Wood, president of the local IUE chapter, represented a new generation of Sprague worker, entering the workforce after World War II with more formal education and a greater knowledge of labor relations.
Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, pay increases at Sprague Electric failed to keep pace with the cost of living. Wood's new union nearly went on strike in 1967, but at an outdoor meeting at Noel Field before approximately 2,000 union employees, the membership decided the time wasn't right. Before talks began for the 1970 contract, the last segment of the workforce, the technical and office workers, joined a national union, the American Federation of Technical Employees (AFTE). Just as production workers had undergone a change leading to a new affiliation, a significant shift occurred among white-collar workers as well.
Women made up the bulk of the labor force at Sprague, and by 1970, with more formal education and greater independence at home, they became more active in their respective unions. With AFTE now established, that union and the IUE joined the machinists, who already had an AFL-CIO tie, having become members of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) back in 1949.
Formal negotiations began in September 1969 with the unions' proposals. Besides wage and ben efit demands, the unions wanted more worker control, including a union shop and binding arbitration. Each union bargained separately and talks between AFTE and management reached an impasse on March 1. The rank and file voted to strike by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, and at midnight the first strike at Sprague since 1949 began.
All the behaviors and emotions of a classic, lengthy strike were exhibited in North Adams during those 10 weeks in 1970. Many battles were fought in and around the picket line, with some physical violence and destruction of property, but mostly with bruised and angry feelings. With union strike benefits relatively low, strikers, particularly those with no other source of income, had a tough time economically, and many had their first taste of surplus government food that winter and spring. Yet they managed to hold firm, singing, shouting, and marching -- belly to backside -- on the picket line. Union leadership rose to the occasion, maintaining a disciplined rank and file, publishing numerous strike bulletins, and keeping its membership well informed of developments.
On March 9, the machinists' union officially went on strike and on March 23 IUE followed suit. Strikers marched in tight formation, often in concentric circles, making it virtually impossible for anyone to easily break through. The police stayed on hand to maintain peace, and male managers made their presence known at shift changes to help female management personnel through the lines.
Evelyn Jones, a union activist and future vice president of IUE said she "picketed and of course I was a big mouth as usual. I could ... yell ‘Scab!' from Mar shall Street to the corner of Main."
The company presented its side of the story with full-page ads in the North Adams Transcript. Editorially, the local radio station gave a vigorous defense of Sprague and the Transcript editorials, while more moderate in tone, became more and more pro-company as the strike wore on. While company president Robert C. Sprague spoke to local civic groups, presenting the company viewpoint, Wood delivered point-by-point rebuttals. AFTE organized a letter-writing campaign to local business people presenting the union story and inviting strike-fund contributions.
Personally, Robert Sprague made a concerted effort to stay in touch with both management and hourly personnel, even those on strike. This is from Sprague's own notes at the conclusion of the strike:
"I made point of remaining in N.A. during strike and went through middle of picket lines at least four times daily. Quite a lot of friendly banter with pickets." Through it all, he made a "(p)rinciple effort ... (t)o keep emotions under control and lid from blowing off."
But a tougher side of Robert Sprague emerged during the strike as well. Early on, he moved one production line out of North Adams in an obvious warning to strikers. Privately, he used his relationship with Jim Hardman, editor of the Transcript, to try to influence the content of the paper. And he fired off lengthy letters to Western Massachusetts con gressional Reps. Silvio Conte and Edward Boland for not favoring the company enough.
The strikers received help from other workers in the community who responded with food and firewood. Local college students, from North Adams State College and Williams College, aided the strike effort as well, helping, for example, to compile information for strike newsletters. The times were changing for these students also, as they had mobilized on their respective campuses, just miles apart, to strike against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and the killings of students at Kent State and Jackson State.
In late April, both sides agreed to mediation in Washington, D.C. On May 5, after 27 consecutive hours of negotiations, a tentative agreement was announced. Workers won a six percent raise during the first year of the contract, and five percent increases in the second and third years. The unions also won the very important right to binding arbitration and an agency shop, which brought with it union security. On May 8, the membership of all three unions approved the contract.
For years, even decades, residents of North Berkshire have taken opposing sides on the wisdom of the strike. The dominant view presented by the company and the media has been one in which the local workforce made a bad decision by striking, saying it led to a loss of much-needed jobs.
As former Sprague employee Norman Chenail stated in a 1992 interview, "Christ, it'd been in the papers -- the thing that killed Sprague's in North Adams was the 1970 strike. ... That's all they talked about." In a 1993 book, John Sprague, the founder's son and last CEO of the company, wrote that "The strike did more than cost North Adams jobs. It almost destroyed Sprague Electric."
While Sprague Electric suffered losses right after the strike, by 1972 the company had recovered its lost sales. It then increased its earnings in the following years. By 1976 the company seemed attractive enough that General Cable (soon to be GK Technologies) purchased it.
Three years later, Sprague CEO Neil Welch reported that the company, now a subsidiary of GK, had earned "record profits of $44 million." In 1981, Penn Central Corporation bought GK, but within five years it had sold off Sprague's lines, effectively closing its gates in North Adams.
In this regard, Penn Central acted no differently than General Electric in Pittsfield or Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania, joining a huge array of manufacturing corporations that shuttered their operations in the Northeast and Midwest in search of lower labor costs and weaker environmental regulations elsewhere.
The desire for higher profits meant the end of industry -- deindustrialization -- in large parts of the U.S. where the mills and factories had been the lifeblood of countless communities.
It seems likely that whether or not Sprague employees had struck in 1970, capacitor production would have ended in the 1980s. But thousands of Sprague employees did strike, standing up to management and exemplifying a dignified and powerful workforce, one that remains a model for future North Berkshire generations.
Maynard Seider is professor emeritus of Sociology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and writer/director of "Farewell to Factory Towns," a film about the city of North Adams and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (farewelltofactorytowns.com). This article is adapted from a much longer piece with full citations that was published in the winter 2014 issue of the "Historical Journal of Massachusetts." For a copy of that article, please contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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