The Chocolate Camelot

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On April 2 twelve hundred workers closed down the plant with a sit-down strike. They left the next day, then occupied the plant again on April 6. The closing of the plant meant that eight hundred thousand pounds of milk arriving in Hershey daily had no market. Local farmers were losing ten thousand dollars a day. Five thousand marchers, including several hundred nonunion Hershey workers and a lot of angry farmers, paraded in the nearby town of Palmyra by torchlight that night, accompanied by local fire trucks, the Hershey Drum and Bugle Corps, the Boy Scouts, and the American Legion. “Hershey’s in America, Let’s Keep It Here” read one banner. The letters CIO were spelled out: “Communistic Idiot Outlaws.” The farmers and independent workers held a big meeting in the sports arena the next day as strikers ran up the cio flag on a pole on the factory roof—above the Stars and Stripes. The farmers gave the strikers an ultimatum—out of the plant by 1 P.M. —and then marched on the factory. In spite of a week of continuous tension there were no police on the scene. At the last moment the strikers decided to give up, but it was too late—there was no stopping the angry crowd, armed with whips, iron pipe, baseball bats, axe handles, rubber hose, ice picks, and carving knives. They forced their way inside—a union man accused a company executive of unlocking the main entrance for them from the inside—and beat and shoved the strikers outside to run a long gauntlet of two rows of farmers and independents who struck and slashed at them and kicked them on their way past.

“The frightened strikers ran all the harder,” reported the New York Times , “pulling coats and shirts over their heads. Many collapsed, with blood streaming from swollen faces and misshapen noses. At the end of the blocklong line they were searched. Then they sprinted for freedom and for hiding places. The former attackers now formed stretcher squads and helped the most battered of their enemies to waiting automobiles for the short trip to Hershey Hospital. The two strike leaders, Russell Behman and John Loy, were not let off quite so easily. They were taken over to a spacious section of the lawn fronting the factory and were subjected to a two-fisted drubbing which left them quite exhausted.” Later Loy blamed Hershey president Murrie for failing to call off the crowd; the governor blamed the local sheriff for letting the mob move in with no police hindrance whatever. Final count was about fifty wounded, two seriously from ice picks shoved into their stomachs. As for Hershey, the old man himself had watched the farmers marching on his factory, and a reporter wrote: “As they passed by singing, tears streamed from his eyes, but he did not speak.”

 

“It was never the same in Hershey after that,” Sam Rosenberger says now. “Before, people were more like a big family.” The battle split the community; a Times reporter had noted that “one of the chief interests … is trying to find where one’s neighbors stand in the dispute. The newspaper photographs of the mêlée are very useful in this connection.” Ray Carlucetti, the present business manager of Local 464, Chocolate Workers, says that scars are still not quite healed and that among older union members now, “If you find one who is really all out gungho for the union, you can guess maybe he was a scab back in those days.” After the beatings the strike faltered, with a few attempts at picketing by the cio while the independents handed out handbills reading “Sit-down is a strike against orphan boys.” In his first interview in fourteen years Hershey blamed the strike on “foolish radicals.”

“Four or five of them simply misled a small minority of the employes into this strike,” Hershey told Robert S. Bird of the Times . “I know that many of these strikers are people I brought here during the depression years. I made work for them during the depression. There was no depression in Hershey. I know the chocolate business all the way through, and I am not sure that some union leaders who would tell me how to run the chocolate business know very much about it. ” Hershey said he thought that a union was not necessary to his employees’ welfare. “Of course, ” he said, “I know the answer that will be made to that statement. Old man Hershey has got something up his sleeve. People said that around here thirty years ago when I wanted to start a co-operative store. Well, I gave up the idea. I had a band around here about that time and I decided to help them out by giving them a hall rent free. I even let them put in a candy and a tobacco counter to help swell their profits. But I found after a great Fourth of July celebration that they still had no money in the till. They had a turnout of people that should have given them a good profit, but they had no profit, and they did not know why. They had smoked up the cigars and cigarettes and drank the pop themselves. The co-operative idea didn’t work and I decided to take over the business end of it myself.”