TERRE HAUTE — “This is a dark day in history of the City of Terre Haute.”
That is how Terre Haute Mayor Ralph Tucker described the violent July 28, 1952, confrontation between representatives of two labor unions at the gates of the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Co. pilot plant on East Wabash Ave.
Eight men were injured in the melee, one critically. Photographs of the encounter appeared in newspapers throughout the U.S., including The New York Times, magnifying Terre Haute’s reputation as “a bad labor town.”
The event was the nadir of a 14-week strike by Local 1164 of the United Auto Workers, affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO).
Allis-Chalmers’ relationship with Terre Haute had a promising beginning. On April 28, 1951, the company with headquarters in Milwaukee announced plans to erect a large plant in Terre Haute to build compressors for J-65 turbojet engines under the largest contract ever let by the Curtiss-Wright Corp.
Initially, it was estimated that the plant would employ between 3,500 and 4,000.
As soon as negotiations were complete to acquire a 215-acre tract at 13th Street and Haythorne Avenue as the site for a $10 million manufacturing plant, the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce devised a plan to utilize the empty and somewhat dilapidated interurban car barns at 2770 Wabash Ave.
The barns were converted into a pilot plant to train employees while the main plant was being constructed. Approximately $180,000 was needed to buy and remodel the interurban buildings. Terre Haute Community Corporation was organized to raise money for the improvements. After $70,000 was invested by businessmen, C..L. “Speed” Shideler, Chamber of Commerce executive vice president, offered stock to the general public for $100 a share.
Glenn North Construction Co. was placed in charge of remodeling. The pilot facility was ready for initial occupancy on May 28, the date machinery was moved into the building. Work at the site was not completed for several months..
On Aug. 11, 1951, Boyd S. Overlink, vice president of Allis-Chalmers, and Martin L. Carson, Terre Haute plant manager, were on hand for groundbreaking ceremonies at the new manufacturing plant site. Air Force personnel, representatives of Austin Company of Chicago, the general contractor, and local officials were present.
The decision by Allis-Chalmers to locate in Terre Haute was hailed in the February 1952 issue of Fortune magazine as “another example of American industrial ingenuity its best.”
By spring 1952, the superstructure of the main plant was complete. The impact of 700 busy construction workers and 430 Allis-Chalmers employees who transformed the car barns into a thriving defense plant was a tremendous boost to the economy.
Almost without warning, on May 7, 1952, members of Local 1164 of the UAW went on strike. As time passed without settlement progress, threats that Allis-Chalmers might locate elsewhere despite its considerable investment seemed real. Construction at the North 13th Street plant was stopped on June 20, 1952. It was 58 percent complete..
On July 1, a citizens committee consisting largely of members of local civic organizations was established and the Rotary Club of Terre Haute offered all of its past presidents to help resolve the dispute. Indiana Labor Commissioner Thomas Hutson and Federal Conciliator Arthur Ingles were participating in daily bargaining sessions.
The Air Force set Tuesday, July 8, at 7:59 a.m., as the deadline for the resumption of work. Without a settlement, its mechanics would remove its machines and tools from the pilot plant. At 7 a.m. that morning, the union met in a tent adjoining the pilot plant and 250 of its 340 members voted to remain on strike.
When settlement was not reached, news sources reported that “a busload of Air Force personnel” entered the pilot plant and “were reported about the task of removing vital tools, the first step in the removal of the $10,000,000 industry from Terre Haute.”
Mayor Tucker, bedridden by a serious illness and recent surgery, met with representatives of labor and management and urged the community “to pray for a favorable outcome.” Indiana Gov. Henry Shricker also beseeched all parties to settle.
Dissident members of Local 1164 turned to Orell B. “Duke” Soucie of Local 841 of the International Union of Operating Engineers of the American Federation of Labor.
On the morning of Monday, July 28, about 250 members of the Operating Engineers formed a “flying wedge” at the picket line guarding the gate at Allis-Chalmers’ East Wabash pilot plant. Blocking traffic on U.S. Highway 40, the attack force broke through to allow five autos carrying 34 AF of L workers to enter the plant.
Workers battled each other with fists and knives until Terre Haute Police Chief Frank Riddle and about 85 officers separated the factions. John Martin of Paris, Ill., a member of the AF of L, was taken to the hospital in critical condition with a punctured lung after being stabbed. At a press conference, Mayor Tucker condemned the bloodshed:.
“The police department of this city has never and will never be used to participate in any differences between labor and management or between two different labor unions,” he asserted.
“I had definite assurances from both sides that the importation of outside gangs or groups would not be used in this controversial matter. I must condemn publicly the hundreds of men involved here who were not residents of this city or otherwise involved in this dispute. It was a breach of faith upon the part of the labor leader involved.”
Coincidentally, U.S. Vice President Alben W. Barkley and his wife spent Sunday night, July 27, at the Terre Haute House en route to their home in Paducah, Ky., after the Democratic National Convention.
The violent incident seemed to expedite settlement. Future efforts to gain entrance to the pilot plant by AF of L workers were withdrawn and, with Tucker serving as the chief mediator, the strike finally was settled on Aug. 20, 1952.
By Dec. 1, 1952, manufacturing operations were underway at the main Terre Haute plant. However, the 29 machines taken by the Air Force to other sites during the strike were not returned, substantially reducing the local work force.
In the summer of 1954, a $4 million addition was added to the local “Works” to manufacture Switchgear, power transformers and other peacetime products. Production of J-65 turbojets was terminated by the Air Force in 1956 and a contract to produce J-79 assemblies was cancelled in 1957.
There were no further labor problems but Allis-Chalmers’ Terre Haute plant, with 700 employees, closed during the summer of 1962 “for economic reasons.”
TERRE HAUTE — “This is a dark day in history of the City of Terre Haute.”
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