Cowell tried to shut out the Union
When the score is tallied, more things may have been wrong with 1937 than were right.
The Great Depression was still overwhelming the world economy. The dirigible Hindenburg had exploded over New Jersey, killing 37 people. The Japanese had shelled and sunk the U.S. Panay, a gunboat traveling up the Yangtze trying to rescue stranded Americans in war-tom China. Amelia Earhart disappeared in a flight over the Pacific Ocean.
1937 was a year of great labor strife. The fledgling C.I.O. (Congress of industrial Organizations) was on the march organizing auto, steel, mine and oil workers. In its quest to pull all industrial workers into its ranks, the C.I.O. was butting head-on with its staid parent, the A.F. of L. (American Federation of Labor).
The battle between the two unions spread across the United States and included the tiny community of Cowell, which was a little to the southeast of Concord.
Cowell was the home of one of the biggest cement plants in the world. It had a payroll of $500,000 a year and a labor force of 265. It processed 1,600 tons of raw materials a day producing 300 barrels of cement. The cent from the Cowell plant built the Bay Area bridges, including the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate.
Many of the Cowell Portland Cement Co. workers lived in company houses, shopped at the company store and ate at the company-run boarding house. Since its opening in 1907, the company had controlled its workers’ lives in a paternal way. Company parties provided entertainment. Company rules set bedtimes and tried to control the consumption of alcoholic beverages in workers’ homes.
Cowell managers issued rules governing the tenants of the company houses. A bulletin issued on May1, 1927, commanded that lights be turned out every night at 10:30 p.m. No lamps or candles would be permitted in the houses. In the winter, lights could be turned on in the morning if necessary, and presumably it was, since work for the first shift-started at 5:45 a.m. Even the amount of sugar in the company boarding-house coffee was regulated.
With the advent of the 1930s, the cement workers at Cowell were becoming more and more dissatisfied. In 1933, a complaint was filed with a federal investigator. When management took action against the complainers, workers decided it was time to unionize.
By 1937, cement company workers had organized under a charter issued by the C.I.Q. The new union group had gained the support of the Contra Costa Central Trades and Labor Council, W.H. George, longtime Cowell plant manager, didn’t like unions in general, but he had a special distaste for the C.I.O.
George decided if his workers had to unionize, he would choose the union. Since Cowell cement provided a lot of the product used by the building trades organized under the A.F. of L, it was an easy matter for George to contact William Green, president of the A.F. of L.
There was no love lost between Green and the leaders of the C.I.O. The A.F. of L. leader gave George the go-ahead to organize cement workers into an A.F. of L union. Green promised George that he (Green) would personally take care of any objections made by the local labor council.
George refused to recognize the cement workers’ C.I.O. union. The workers brought their complaints to the newly-created National Labor Relations Board. Cowell attorneys said that since the overwhelming majority of the cement plant’s busi-ness was within California, the NLRB had no jurisdiction.
The NLRB turned down the workers. The union representatives refiled and were turned down again. In the meantime, the workers threatened strike, but before they could take action, George dosed down the plant on July 16, calling it a seasonal “shutdown.” In truth, the Cowell plant had closed its doors for a short time before in past summers, but it had always kept its shipping force at work. This summer would be no different.
C.I.O. members threw up a Picket line. Old-time cement workers suspected that George had his new A.F. of L. workers enter the plant by crossing the empty fields at the back of the plant.
On Sept. 7, the Contra Costa Gazette reported that 15 A.F. of L. Teamsters had crossed the cement workers’ picket line.
“We are not going to recognize any C.I.O. picket line … We are going to run our trucks in and out of the plant,” said J.L. VonTellrop, the business agent for the Martinez A.F. of L. Teamsters.
A day later, a union meeting was held in downtown Martinez, drawing 150 strikers who gained support from six C.I.O. affiliates, the auto, steel, oil, mine, mill and smelter workers.
Joe Ring, C.I.O. representative, came to talk to the striking workers.
“The C.LO. would not stand by and see any beef squads from the Teamsters beat up the CIO. pickets. This is not a fight between the C.LO. and A.F. of L. The Cowell strikers were locked out for joining a union of their own choosing…. A petition is being circulated in Contra Costa County demanding the NLRB reopen the Cowell case and see justice is done.”
by Nelda Rego, August 4, 1996
In the end, Cowell’s labor problems never went away. In 1946, the workers demanded a pay increase to $6 per day. The Cowells responded by shutting down the plant.
Cowell Historical Society