The monument, a $1.3 million granite sculpture, plaza and fountain, sits on the land of the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum on the banks of the Grand River near the Indian mounds. This was a ten year labor of love founded in 1997 by union members and historians. The very long list of donors who helped make this monument a reality include hundreds of labor unions, businesses, and individuals.
It was created to honor the bravery of the striking immigrant workers in 1911, educate everyone about the role labor people played in the establishment of the City, recognize the 19th and early 20th century hard working people who gave Grand Rapids its identity as the furniture city, and more broadly recognize and honor all working people.
At the beginning of the 20th century, furniture factories dominated the physical and economic landscape of Grand Rapids. More than 60 factories employed more than 5000 workers making it truly the "furniture capital" of the nation. It began on April 19th and eventually included over 7,000 furniture craftsment and laborers who walked out of 59 factories. The workers started asking for a nine-hour day, a 10% raise commensurate with the rise in the cost of living, the abolition of pay based on piece work, and the recognition of the right of the unions to bargain collectively with the factory owners. Factory owners refused to make concessions to any of the demands. The strike lasted four months, through the hot summer of 1911, bringing much of the city to a standstill. Employers fought back with strikebreakers and legal maneuvers to prevent mass pickets, but the workers were assisted by national unions of carpenters, painters, woodcarvers and upholsterers and remained on strike through August. However, in early August, the national unions were running out of money and they had to severely reduce the already small $5 that workers received in strike pay each week. A second blow was delivered when Christian Reformed Church leaders issued an edict forbidding their members to belong to unions. Faced with deep economic deprivation and with a split in their ranks, workers began to return to work. The last remaining strikers voted to end the walkout on August 19.
The woman in the sculpture represents the wives of the workers who supported the strike despite real personal hardships. Careful, she's hiding rocks under her long skirt, just like the women did almost 100 years ago in the one violent event that took pace during the strike. The older male figure waiving his fist represents a Dutch Protestant worker who united with his fellow workers despite years of statements from church leaders that tried to use religion as a method to separate workers. The third figure represents the immigrant Catholic workers (Poles, Germans and Lithuanians) who brought the value of solidarity with them from Europe and with waving hat in hand enthusiastically invited people to join the movement and march for the rights of all working people.
Each of the four entry walks in to the monument area represents the four ethnic groups involved in the strike (Poles, Lithuanians, Dutch and Germans) who came together despite ethnic, language and religious differences to present a united front to the factory owners. The rough hewn granite walls represent the strength and hard working nature of the furniture workers. The fountain represents the Grand River and the turmoil the strikers faced. Even the circular shape of the plaza mirrors the Native American burial mounds nearby, thereby linking Grand Rapid's many historical threads together.
The sculpture was created by Roberto Chenlo (a former member of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters) and Gregory Scott was the landscape architect.