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The Strike

Part V: The Strike

Moorhead old-timers simply referred to it as "the strike." In the early morning hours of January 11, 1943, the staff of the Moorhead Water and Light Department walked off the job, idling the city’s power plant and water pumping station.



"Cold, hungry and dirty," is the way one reporter described Moorhead citizens the morning after the strike began, as citizens woke up to unheated homes, no lights, no running water or showers and cold cereal.


The strike, coming at a time when Americans were embroiled in a world war, absolutely stunned the residents of Moorhead. Stores were closed; Fargo hotels were deluged with inquiries from Moorhead residents; and telephone lines were overburdened with the volume of calls from worried residents. Schools closed for the day, and babies in the nursery at St. Ansgar’s Hospital were kept warm with hot-water bottles.


"The strike came without warning," The Fargo Forum reported. Temperatures hovered near 15 degrees during the day on January 11, and city fathers worried about fire protection and a freeze-up in the city’s sewage treatment machinery. The city was without fire protection of any kind for several hours in the early morning hours of January 11 until a single line of fire hose from the Fargo system was laid across the Red River.


The strike came as no surprise to workers at the Moorhead Light and Water Department. For more than a year, workers had been agitating for union representation, an effort that had fallen on deaf ears at the Light and Water Commission.


"The Water and Light Commission wouldn’t meet with us," recalls Andre "Andy" Houglum. Houglum, then a member of the department’s line crew, remembers that the workers in 1943 were seeking the right to be represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and were asking for a 40-hour week.


"They wouldn’t go along with that," Houglum said. "They came back with the offer of a 44-hour week."


Employees had negotiated with the Water and Light Commission throughout much of the end of 1942 and January 1943. On January 9, W.H. Foard, the business manager of Local B949 of the IBEW, told newspaper reporters that talks were going nowhere and that the workers were "ready to take action at 4 p.m." that day. Commissioners assured residents that the power plant and the water pumping station would be kept in operation and service maintained, no matter what happened.


"We feel that we have gone as far as we can toward placating the union organizers and the employees, without violating the law, charter regulations and our responsibility to all the people of Moorhead, as owners of the municipal plant," Mayor R.B. Bergland and Water and Light Commissioners R.A. Gletne and J.A. Murray said in a prepared statement the morning of January 9. "Therefore, if there is a walkout, we plan to continue to operate our light and power plant, with the loyal employees who are willing to stay on the job, and to replace those who refuse to do so after being told that a walkout will constitute a resignation."


Mayor R.B. Bergland working by candlelight at the power plant as striking workers
cut power to Moorhead on January 11, 1943. Photo by the Forum.


The problem faced by the Water and Light Commission was rather simple: there were no "loyal employees" willing to stay on the job.


It was absolutely astounding that the work stoppage occurred in the midst of the war. A year before, unions had given President Franklin D. Roosevelt what amounted to a "no-strike" pledge. But Foard, the IBEW business manager, was so frustrated after 11 months of dealing with the Water and Light Commission that he authorized the Moorhead workers to go out on strike. In essence, he advised the employees that since they were not unionized, they were not bound by the no-strike pledge.


"Our business manager went to the Moorhead Police Department that afternoon and told them to tell the hospital to start their emergency generators," Rex Lathrop recalls. Lathrop, a worker in the power plant, explained that workers were angry about wage cutbacks that had occurred during the Great Depression and were never reinstated following the start of World War II.


Ernest Wicklund, chief engineer of the power plant, was sympathetic to the grievances of the employees. Wicklund supervised the orderly shutdown of the plant in the early hours of January 11, maintaining pressure in the boilers so that power could be restored within one hour of a labor settlement.


"That morning, one of the commissioners called the power plant and asked how many were in the union," Lathrop recalls. "Ernie said, ‘All of them.’"


Power plant chief engineer Ernie Wicklund went on strike with the rank
and file in 1943 and in return, lost his selective service exemption and was
drafted after the strike was settled.

Employees had barricaded themselves inside the power plant the evening of January 10, and by dinnertime—after 11 hours of enforced power outage—negotiations got serious. During the afternoon, the mayor, city council members and water and light commissioners had gathered in the power plant’s office. Late that afternoon, James Garrity, Sr., Clay County Attorney, appeared at the office.


"He asked our business agent if the union had given a strike notice," Lathrop said. "Foard gave Garrity the notice he had given the council." Lathrop remembered that Garrity proceeded to berate council members for letting things get out of hand and advised them to sign an agreement to recognize the union—which they soon did. "Our business agent came out and told us to start her up," Lathrop recollects.



The first casualty of the strike was Harold Warner, superintendent of the Water and Light Department. Warner had assumed that he and Wicklund and several loyal employees could keep the power plant operating in a pinch. But Wicklund’s solidarity with the rank and file had dashed those hopes, and even Herbert Warner, Harold’s brother, had walked out when the rest of the employees did.


Less than a year after the settlement of the strike, Harold Warner was ousted as superintendent. Warner was replaced by George Dienst, superintendent of the municipal utility at Owatonna, Minnesota. Ernest Wicklund, the chief engineer at the power plant who had elected to throw in his lot with the union members, lost his selective service exemption and was drafted.


The strike created an uproar in St. Paul. Building trades members in Moorhead had advised the power plant workers not to strike while the conservative Minnesota Legislature was in session—advice that was not taken. Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen did veto strong anti-labor legislation that spring following the report of a committee that he had appointed to investigate the root causes of the strike.


Named to head the committee, which held hearings in Moorhead during February 1943, was St. Paul Attorney Warren Burger. Burger, who later became Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and his committee reported to Stassen that the city had badly misread its employees’ intentions. That spring, the city signed an agreement with the IBEW, and labor relations returned to normal. The strike became a distant memory as Moorhead began to face rapidly increasing postwar demands for more power and more water.



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