My article on women workers at the Remington Rand plant in Elmira, New York was published this month in the Chemung Historical Journal – without much editing and with better photos! Very exciting to see it in print, and to know that I’ve helped to illuminate a hidden history.
One thing historians usually realize as they research and write is that often we have as many unanswered questions at the end of the process as at the beginning, and one of the questions that I was unable to fully answer when I researched the Remington Rand plant in Elmira is why the Rand chose Elmira in 1936 to invest in so heavily. Yes, I know it was the Depression and there were a lot of people willing to work; yes, I know Elmira had a well-developed railroad system; but why Elmira and not some other community in upstate New York?
Aha! In researching women workers in the Syracuse area (for an article I’m preparing for the Onondaga Historical Association’s journal), I found out: beginning in 1934, after the passage of the NRA, over 1100 workers at the Rand’s Syracuse plant began to try to form a union under the auspices of the AFL. Management was dead set against this. No concidence that they began looking for some out-of-the-way community, hoping people would be so desperate or naive that they would work cheaply. When news leaked out that typewriter production was to begin in Elmira (a conservative backwater then as well as now), Syracuse workers began agitation which built up into a full-blown labor revolt in 1936. The Syracuse mayor, good friends with the owner of Remington Rand, clearly sided with management. Management locked out the strikers, brought in strikebreakers and “detectives” from the Burns Agency to stay in the factory, and began to threaten to entirely close down the Syracuse plant. Ultimately, most of typewriter production was moved elsewhere, either to Elmira or to Ilion.
Ironically, Elmira workers were not as naive as the Rand management had hoped; by 1938, they also were organizing their own union, and after years of struggle, got one at the beginning of World War II, but not before the Rand management had tried to “buy them off” by offering their workers an increase in their hourly wage. This attempt backfired, though – by offering male workers a bigger increase than female workers, many women at the Rand turned to a union to guarantee their equality!