05 September 2016

They Busted Their Unions And Broke Their Brands

Two years ago, on Labor Day, I wrote about the strike metal platers, polishers and buffers waged against Schwinn and Excelsior-Henderson (two motorcycle manufacturers Schwinn owned) in 1919.  

Although the Bike Boom that spanned the last decade of the 19th Century and the first of the 20th had gone bust, Schwinn continued to prosper because it was one of the first bicycle manufacturers to market bicycles as children's' toys as it continued to make bikes for adults.  Also, Schwinn acquired other bike manufacturers as well as the aforementioned makers of motorcycles, which were ascending in popularity.  

The metalworkers knew that Herr Schwinn could, shall we say, afford to buy the products his company made, in whatever quantity he desired. The same could not be said for his workers.  They rode his bikes to work, but often had to purchase them on installment plans.

They made demands that Schwinn found outrageous:  a 44-hour workweek and wages of 85 cents an hour.  He could not believe their audacity, not to mention their ingratitude, and did what any good industrialist who saw his financial life flashing before his eyes would do:  He got injunctions against the unions whose members were canceling orders, or not placing them in the first place, in sympathy with the strikers.  He also had strikers arrested on trumped-up charges, hired thugs to use "friendly persuasion" to convince strikers to cross picket lines--and made his foremen  use said workers for target practice.  After all, a strike is stressful and, as a friend of mine pointed out, going to the shooting range is "relaxing".

Anyway, all of the labor journals of the day urged readers to support the strikers in any way they could, whether by standing with them physically or participating in the boycotts--not only against Schwinn, but against the companies that did business with the bike-maker.

Well, it turns out that wasn't the last instance of Schwinn trying to subvert labor organization in its plants, at least according to more than one source.  In the early 1980s, Schwinn began to manufacture in a new Mississippi facility.  Now, to be fair, the old Chicago complex was outdated and would have needed extensive reworking to make the kinds of bikes for which demand was developing. But, it also just so happened that workers in that facility organized (affiliating themselves with the United Auto Workers) and struck in 1980.  Mississippi, like other southern states, has a long history of hostility to unions. 

Anyway, during the first few years of production, the quality of those bikes from the Magnolia State left something to be desired.  Again, to be fair, so did the quality of the bikes Schwinn would import from Hungary a few years later.  And, while the company had already shifted some of its production overseas, it was late to develop working relationships with their Japanese--and, later, Taiwanese and Chinese--subcontractors.  It also was slow to identify trends such as mountain bikes.

The result, of course, was bankruptcy, and its acquisition by a conglomerate that owns an number of other bike brands.  Like bikes bearing those names,  "Schwinn Brand" bikes are made in China and sold in big-box stores. (The "Schwinn Signature" series, which consists of higher-quality bikes and accessories, is sold only in bike shops.)  So have the mighty fallen.

Again, to be fair, Schwinn is not the only, or even the first, bike manufacturer to break its workers' union and, in doing so, sow some of the seeds of its destruction.

Some you may have owned or ridden a "Roadmaster" bicycle.  The brand first saw the light of day in 1936, when Cleveland Welding Company (CWC)--which made bicycles for a number of other companies--introduced it.   American Machine and Foundry (AMF) purchased the Roadmaster children's and youth bicycle lines in 1950.  I couldn't find much information about the transaction, but my uninformed guess is that CWC went out of businesses, or was simply divesting itself out of unprofitable enterprises.

1937 Cleveland Welding Company "Roadmaster" Bicycle

AMF then formed a wheel goods division, which made tricycles, pedal cars and tractors, and wagons in addition to bicycles.  Like the Chicago Schwinn plant of the 1970s, the CWC facilities AMF inherited were antiquated and AMF executives looked into replacing them.

And, in an eerie parallel with Schwinn in 1980, AMF workers in Cleveland--who were organized by (you guessed it) the United Auto Workers--struck in 1953.  The labor stoppage was, like Schwinn's in 1919 and 1980, long and acrimonious.  And AMF resolved it the way Schwinn did their second strike:  by opening up a new factory in a state where unions were (and are) all but non-existent.  In AMF's case, the new locale was Arkansas--in the capital, Little Rock, to be exact.

1964 AMF Roadmaster "Skyrider"

Now, no one ever equated the quality of AMF/Roadmaster bikes with those of Schwinn, not even the ones made in Mississippi or Hungary.  But the company, again like Schwinn, enjoyed prosperity during the Baby Boom-fueled population growth of the 1960s and 70s--and, of course, one of its offsprings, the '70's Bike Boom.  Then the Little Rock factory, like Schwinn's Chicago facility, became outdated and--even though Arkansas AMF workers didn't unionize--the company's management whined about labor costs. So, off to the mystic East they went.

Now Roadmaster is owned by Pacific--ironically, the same company that now owns Schwinn.  I'm not saying that avoiding and busting unions or outsourcing alone led to the subsumation of Schwinn and Roadmaster.  But I think that the "race to the bottom" in production costs helped, along with other bad management decisions, to debase the quality of what each company was selling and, subsequently, its reputation (more so in the case of Schwinn).  Now Schwinn bikes, once the dream of so many American kids--and the mount of Olympians--are indistinguishable from other brands sold alongside it in Wal Mart.  Like Roadmaster.


  1. That's a great post for Labor Day. I know a lot of people blame the demise of Schwinn's American manufacturing on the labor union and the strike, but that view leaves out the reality of years and years of neglecting the Chicago factory, the failure to invest in new machinery and tooling, bad management decisions, and a lot of complacency in the face of new trends. The AMF story follows a similar pattern, and the story was played out again and again with only minor differences across the industry.

  2. It's a shame that so many companies put so much effort into fighting their labour force that could be better spent in improving their product or just keeping their doors open.

    And when they do fail, instead of facing themselves in the mirror, they run crying about how the unions ruined them. Sadly, many people have drunk the anti-union kool-aid and just nod in agreement.

  3. Complacency was a common failing of American companies after the war. Once they came up with a workable product their attitude seemed to be "well we got that one figgered out, let's sit on our asses and wait for the cash to roll in". There seemed to be very little pressure to innovate. You saw this across industry, from Indian motorcycles to Sunbeam toasters. It's just to easy to blame it on the workers.
    I really like the lines of that '37 CWC Roadmaster you have pictured. The tubes have a sort of Dr Seuss quality about them.

  4. Brroks, Mike and Philip--Interesting that you all cite complacency as a cause of Schwinn's, AMF's and the US cycling industry's fate. And, as you all point out, managers of those companies look everywhere but in the mirror for causes of their industry's decline.

    Brooks--Thank you for the compliment.

    Mike--"The anti-union kool-aid" is an apt description.

    Philip--I love the lines of that '37 CWC bike, too. It does, as you say, have a kind of Dr. Suess quality.