The 1950 Labor Strike
“A college does not consist of bricks and stone, but is a vital thing, with a background of traditions and emotions, built up through the years by men and women of faith and courage carrying on the unending search for truth and the good life.”
This statement was written by former Colby President Franklin Johnson as Colby neared completion of a new campus. Johnson inaugurated the project in the years following World War I after the administration and trustees decided Colby’s continued growth was contingent upon its ability to expand. In 1951, the campaign to relocate the campus to Mayflower Hill outside of downtown Waterville was wrapping up, and Johnson reflected on the impact of the move.
President Johnson’s words are wise but must be read critically. The buildings are only a piece of Colby; there to facilitate growth and the formation of intellectual networks and structure. From the perspective of one student of the era, Colby’s narrow focus on the construction of buildings impacted the intellectual climate of the school:
“The administration seemed dead. They just focused on their damn buildings, which was important. But you can’t just leave the intellectual pursuits aside to be picked up twenty years later.”
Those words come from Paul Christopher a student in the class of 1951. Christopher also was a laborer who worked on the construction of the Colby campus. He helped to organize and coordinate a strike for higher wages in 1950. His story is emblematic of the class struggles which occur at the foundation of any institution such as Colby and the fine line it walks on the “unending search for truth and the good life.” As the buildings are overshadowed by the intellectual pursuits they inspire, the people who build and care for them become invisible too.
In fact Paul Christopher is surprised the “powers that be hadn’t thoroughly erased, buried or burned all traces of that one small attempt at fair pay for honest work.” He’s got a good sense of humor, but understands the complexities of what went on. At home on Cliff Island in Casco Bay, he offers guests a home cooked lobster dinner and a sense of the pressures on all sides in the strike. Colby was struggling to stay afloat, he explains. Admission had declined, and without more students any hope of intellectual pursuits would be lost.
But Colby didn’t have the best timing, and embarked on the arduous task of relocating amidst the Depression and World War II. Under the direction of President Johnson, and eventually President Bixler, Colby made it through, but the squeeze had to be felt somewhere.
The pressure was felt by the laborers on Colby construction more than anyone. The construction company had agreed to absorb increased pay for skilled workers under the contract, but any increase in pay for laborers would be passed on to the college. It probably saved the college some money, but put them right in the middle of the strike when it came.
In the Nov. 10, 1950 edition of The Colby Echo, Christopher is quoted: “One dollar per hour, making a take home pay of approximately thirty-seven dollars per week, fails to keep life and limb together for the workers.” A half century later, Christopher rocks in his living room and continues the story. His own energy makes the room seem even brighter. “Every other trade was getting raises–roofers, tile layers, brick masons–but we [the laborers] weren’t getting a raise,” Paul explains, charged up like he might have been back in 1950.
In mid-October the Common Laborers’ Union demanded increases ranging from 25 to 40 cents an hour, according to news accounts of the time. The college approved an across-the-board increase of only a dime. On November 1, when their demands had not been met the union struck and picketed the construction site. None of the other workers were willing to cross the picket and construction came to a halt. Laborers working to construct Thayer Hospital, also in Waterville, joined in the work stoppage.
The camaraderie among workers didn’t reflect the general sentiment in Waterville. “The newspapers, the policemen, merchants–everybody–was against us.” People didn’t want common labor to think they could demand a raise in pay, explains Christopher. “We were setting the precedent, and the fight went beyond those striking . . . but to all underpaid workers in the region who might follow in our footsteps.”
Christopher remembers being surprised by the lack of support from his fellow students, but he says they “had no idea.” Most of them “didn’t think the school was upper-class enough and so they weren’t very supportive of the strike.” He adds, “They just thought I was a trouble maker.”
Christopher’s direct relationship with Colby as a student made him especially vulnerable as the negotiator for the union. He recalls President Bixler threatening to suspend him and remembers an occasion when Bixler brought him in to speak with one of the trustees: “The guy talked about settling a deal with his people which involved making a car available to the person who organized the union in his plant.”
No official bribe was offered, but Christopher still can’t believe Bixler just sat there and listened. Christopher further explains, “then Bixler started in on me about my loyalty to the college.” Faced with the choice between the well being of his fellow workers and his dedication to the school, Christopher says he wept. He tells this story with an urgency in his voice. “I was supposed to go in there and give ‘em a good kick,” figuratively. “But I wept and I felt like I had really let the union down.”
It’s a difficult confession, but Christopher says he’s glad to “bare a breast to [this] search for the ghost in the closet.” Not all of those ghosts have tortured souls, however. Christopher wants to focus more of his time on the good people at Colby, and he remembers “the faculty was great.”
Professor Fullam, whom Paul had for history, was also president of the local chapter of the American Association of College and University Professors. Paul says, Fullam “went to see Bixler and told him he had talked to the key people in AACUP and they were concerned and willing to make a protest if I was thrown out of college.”
As Paul’s wife Alice walks into the room he smiles fondly and then dives into another story of support at Colby: “The librarian, who–when it was suggested he fire my wife, because it would make things difficult for me–said he wouldn’t.” And the librarian went even further. He promised, since he was the only one who could fire Alice, that if anyone else tried he would make a statement and resign.
Vincent DiNunno, the regional director for The Common Laborers Union, stepped in to take the pressure off Christopher. “DiNunno came in and said they were going to throw me out of college and he wanted to make sure I graduated,” Christopher remembers. He still insists, however, “DiNunno settled for less than I would have.”
“There were some brave and good people,” Christopher remembers, ” but it was an either or situation,” implying the sides in this dispute didn’t have much choice but play the hands they’d already been dealt. Paul Christopher leans back in his rocker enjoying all the moments from an “unending search for truth and the good life.” He has no complaints about the way those cards fell from the deck: “They didn’t fire my wife, and I got a degree–History and Government.”