Marble Minutes: Dark days



By Cathy Miglorie
January 28th, 2011

Seventy-five years ago, the Vermont Marble Co. was in the grip of the Great Depression. With revenue declining, company management decided to keep doors open by cutting working hours and distributing the available work among employees so no one lost his job.

But nearly all who were employed had seen paychecks cut severely, and employees daily faced the possibility of losing jobs. More than 600 workers went out on a bitter strike, demanding a pay raise from 37½ cents to 50 cents an hour.

The men who refused to strike, who stayed on the job to feed and house their families during the cold winter, were stoned by the strikers as they reported to work each day. Their houses were bombed. Power lines were blown up; bridges were destroyed. Even more violence erupted when strikers learned the marble company had reduced housing rents as a reward for workers who stayed on the job.

Nationwide, newspapers detailed the horrors of the strike at Vermont Marble Co., one of the country’s largest employers. The company’s reputation suffered when, despite assertations that it could not afford to pay workers more, it still issued stock dividends; and when the public learned that the local sheriff’s department had been paid by the state of Vermont while breaking the strike.

On Jan. 14, 1936, The Lewiston Daily Sun reported:

“Windows were smashed today in a Vermont Marble Co. worker’s home today as fresh violence broke out in the 10-week strike of the company’s employees.

“Deputy sheriffs tonight were seeking to learn the identity of the persons who broke the windows of the home of Lewis Simonette of West Rutland, an employee of the company who refused to join 600 others in striking.

“A week ago, a battle between strikers and deputies sent 17 to hospitals.”

On Jan. 15, the same paper reported that sympathizers of the striking workers rallied to send money and food to the striker’s headquarters in Rutland.

“A check from University of Wisconsin students and a crate of chickens from Northern Vermont were included tonight among donations received at headquarters of striking employees of the Vermont Marble Co.

“Allen A. Raycraft, president of the International Quarry Workers Union, announced that $4,000 had been received since the strike began three months ago. 600 operatives are on strike, demanding higher wages and better working conditions.

“Two marble workers, Leo Lebrizzi and Michael Mchewski, injured in a riot last Tuesday in which almost a score of deputy sheriffs and workers were hurt, were released from the hospital today. They were taken to Rutland County jail and arraigned on charges of failing to disperse upon an officer’s order. They were released in $2,000 bail after pleading innocent.

“Twelve chickens received from Vergennes were distributed to strikers’ families in which there was sickness.”

When the United Committee to Aid the Vermont Marble Workers was formed, rumors circulated that strikers had communist support. This decidedly left-leaning organization, established in New York City, conducted well-publicized anti-Proctor meetings in West Rutland.

In addition, Vito Marcantonio, a radical congressman from New York who made no secret of his allegiance to the socialist and communist parties, addressed Congress on March 11, 1936. He used the strike to advocate his position in support of labor unions.

“We have now in Rutland, Vt., and the towns adjoining Rutland, the Vermont Marble Co. doing government work and subjecting its workers to the worst form of terrorism and exploitation. The Vermont Marble Co. furnished the marble for the United States Supreme Court Building, as well as for the Sailors and Soldiers Monument, and it has at present $5 million worth of government contracts. The employees of the Vermont Marble Co. are out on strike. Just what is this Vermont Marble Co. strike? It is a strike upon the part of the workers of the Vermont Marble Co., about 800 of them, who are demanding a decent living wage, and I take this opportunity to present to my colleagues and to call the attention of the country to the nature of the conditions these men have been working under in Rutland, Vt.

“They were living in company buildings, and they had to pay rent, light, water charges and pasturage charges. The company took out the charges for rent, the charges for light, the charges for water, the charges for pasturage and the heads of those families went home on Saturday night, in many instances, with 50 cents a week, and never did that pay envelope have a balance of more than $5 a week. Sometimes those families consisted of 7, 8 or 10 people. I submit that even the most conservative gentlemen of this House cannot disagree with men going out on strike when they are receiving at the end of the week not more than $5 a week, and in many instances, 50 cents and 30 cents per week.

“Of course, the company was very charitable to those men. They extended their charity in the following respects: When the charges due to the company exceeded the sum of $13.30 per week, the company would voluntarily give to the worker 20 cents, so that he could travel back home. They also established a hospital. The family that owns the Vermont Marble Co. is one of the oldest dynasties in the state of Vermont. There have been three or four governors from that family. Naturally they go in for charity. They established a hospital there. This hospital gives the workers a very great benefit, to wit, the employees of the Vermont Marble Co. may use that hospital at the rate of only $3 per day, while those who are not employees may use that hospital at $3.50 per day. It is just like a salesman for the Lincoln automobile going up to an unemployed man on relief and informing him that he can buy a Lincoln car for $500 less than it actually costs. (Laughter)

“It may be asked, ‘Why does this situation concern the Congress?’ I say it does concern the Congress, because the Vermont Marble Co. today actually has $5 million worth of contracts with the government of the United States. The marble in that Supreme Court building has been furnished by the Vermont Marble Co. This company, incidentally, which claims poverty and which says it cannot pay any decent wages, according to the statistics given us by the Standard Statistics, which is a reliable authority and accepted by all business firms in the United States, has accounts payable $119,000 against an inventory of $1 million; cash on hand, $65,000; accounts receivable $1,100,000, mostly from the United States Government; land and buildings, $5 million; investments in subsidiary concerns, $3 million. This same company, which refuses decent wages, has been paying a 5 percent dividend regularly on its preferred stock.

“I submit that the administration cannot in one breath say it intends to protect labor, and in the other breath hand out contracts to people like the Vermont Marble Co., which is exploiting labor. I do not mean to insult the dignity of the Supreme Court, but I say that the marble with which the Supreme Court building has been built is stained with the blood of the exploited wage slaves of Vermont.”

Despite Marcantonio’s passionate support, the workers still lost. The Vermont Marble Co. was not unionized until 1945.