Striking a chord

‘Gossard girl’ recounts her time on the picket lines 70 years ago

At left, Elaine Peterson displays her union cards. The 93-year-old Ishpeming resident participated in a 1949 local labor movement, which would result in the unionization of the H.W. Gossard factory in Ishpeming. Peterson is one of the last surviving “Gossard Girls” who participated in the strike. (Journal photo by Lisa Bowers)

ISHPEMING — Seventy years ago on a cold and overcast April 12, hundreds of women locked arms in solidarity, barring management and non-union workers from entering the H.W. Gossard corset and bra factory.

“It was 5 o’clock in the morning, we were supposed to be there between 5 and 5:15,” said 93-year-old Ishpeming resident Elaine Peterson. “The plant didn’t open until 7 in the morning. You had to be at your machine and ready to sew at 7, so that was pretty early for us to be there at 5. And we just lined up and the non-union came and they were trying to break through the line and we were holding arms … They called the cops.”

Peterson is one of the last “Gossard Girls,” as they have been affectionately named, who remembers the four-month-long strike.

“We wanted everybody to be treated equally,” Peterson said. “That’s all we wanted, and more money. I think our strike also had to do with women’s lib(eration), to show that we are not going to take dirt from the big shots. “

There had been efforts afoot to form a union at the shop, which employed 500 to 600 people — most of them women — prior to that fateful day in 1949, but none of them were successful. That was, until Geraldine Defant stepped on the scene.

Picketers gather in front of the Gossard factory on Cleveland Street in 1949. (Photo courtesy of Sandy Arsenault)

Defant came to Marquette from Chicago in 1948 with the sole purpose of making the Gossard factory a union shop. According to an interview with Defant conducted in 1990, she had serviced two other Gossard plants in Indiana for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.

Defant worked closely with Ishpeming union organizer Ruth Crane, going from house to house in the city to “talk about the advantages of working in the union shop and to get union cards signed” in the three to four months prior to the strike.

The union negotiated with factory management for months, using the strike threat and offering arbitration, but none of that worked, Defant said in the 1990 interview.

“We knew that it was going to be an expensive strike. And the international did not want to lightly go into a strike of 500 people without making every effort to settle it,” Defant told the interviewer. “It was not to be settled. What happened inside the company I can only guess. We went out on strike.”

Peterson said Defant “was a lady that had a mind of her own, let me tell you.

The Old Gossard building on Cleveland Avenue in Ishpeming is pictured. The building was once home to over 500 employees who worked at the H.W. Gossard bra and corset factory. (Journal photo by Lisa Bowers)

“Harold Peterson, the manager, he said ‘You’ll never get a union shop,'” she continued. “And Geraldine said, ‘We’ll never go back to work.’ And that was what really kept us out, I would say, the four months that we were out of that union shop, because there was lots (of people) that didn’t want the union.”

The union took good care of its striking members, offering breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as a weekly stipend for workers participating in the strike.

“You had to get your card punched every day you went out on the picket line,” Peterson said. “Four months was a long time. But you know, morale really wasn’t that bad. The weather got nicer and nicer, and it did get more calm near the end.”

Peterson even went to jail at one point during the strike for over-picketing, along with 25 of her fellow union members, because they were part of a crowd that surrounded Harold Peterson’s car to keep him from taking bundles of unfinished garments to a small plant in Gwinn to be finished.

“I mean, he thought he was going to get in there, Harold did, that we would let him in there,” Peterson recalled. “We all gathered around his car, he couldn’t go anywhere. They called that over-picketing because we weren’t moving. You have to move, you can’t stand still.”

Peterson said the manager, who never got those bundles to Gwinn, picked 25 names and reported them to the police. The women voluntarily went to the police station downtown a few days after the incident.

The strike was not without animosity, Peterson said, but there was very little violence.

“We would just carry signs, move our bodies and sometimes we would sing union songs,” Peterson said. “And the ones across the street would be hollering and we would holler back ‘scabs’ and ‘no two cents.'”

She said the absolute worst day of the strike came not in Ishpeming, but at the Gwinn plant.

Over 100 union members went to strike at the plant, which was also not a union shop.

According to Defant’s interview there was “dissatisfaction and tension within the Gwinn plant … and indeed in the Gwinn community.”

“They felt the picket line coming down from Ishpeming was threatening … the one industrial plant in the community,” Defant said.

She said the strikers had lined up around the Gwinn plant singing union songs to steel their frayed nerves when a woman drove her car into the picket line, injuring eight women.

Early reports say the incident was deliberate, while others say that the woman drove the car into the crowd by accident.

“She was anti-union we later found,” Defant said. “Whether it was an effort to frighten the picketers and she thought she could get out of it, or whether she lost her head and deliberately meant to do bodily harm, I don’t know. The courts gave her a suspended sentence so they have their own determination of what happened.”

The strike resulted in a happy ending for Peterson. Her late husband, Bill, who worked for Cleveland Cliffs Iron Co., proposed to her on the picket line.

“I liked him, he was a nice guy,” Peterson said. “Here he comes, I was picketing at night. He comes in, I give him a kiss and (says) ‘How was work?’ and this and that, and he says ‘I’ve got something for you.’ He pulled it (a ring) out and says ‘Will you marry me?’ and I said ‘Yes I will.'”

They married on Aug. 6, just as the strike ended, but the next challenge was getting time off for her honeymoon in Niagara Falls.

“I had to go down — being arrested by Harold Peterson, being on the negotiating committee, being an active union member — and ask for two weeks off for a honeymoon,” Peterson said. “Oh boy, that was tough. He hemmed and hawed, but he gave it to me.”

Peterson has become fast friends with Ishpeming businesswoman Sandy Arsenault, who owns the Gossard Building today.

Peterson has been helping Arsenault by providing personal details about what it was like to work in the H.W. Gossard plant.

“She worked there for 22 years total, and she was one of the handful of people that was there when the plant closed its doors on Dec. 31, 1976,” Arsenault said.

As the building owner, Arsenault said she has been working to preserve the history of the structure and document the impact that it had on Ishpeming throughout its existence.

“People may not remember,” Arsenault said, “but the Gossard was one of the largest employers in the area, second only, I think, to Cleveland Cliffs. I want to connect the dots and collect all the history I can. Our women throughout the country have come a long way, standing up for themselves, and fair treatment, and credit can be due to our brave women in Marquette County for standing up for their rights.”

Arsenault said she would like to hear from anyone who might have information about the H.W. Gossard factory and the people who worked there.

She can be reached via email at sandy@oldgossard.com, or by calling 906-485-5464.