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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ernest Seeman, February 13, 1976. Interview B-0012. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Strike at the Seeman Printery and tensions between employers and workers

Seeman describes a strike that occurred at Seeman Printery sometime during early twentieth century. Seeman begins by describing technological advances that helped the printer grow during this time. Seeman's father eventually employed approximately fifty men. According to Seeman, his father paid union wages; however, the workers became dissatisfied because Seeman and his brothers occupied the managerial positions. Because the workers were not promoted to such positions, they walked out. Seeman discusses how troubling the incident was because he also felt his family had been on friendly terms with the workers. Although Seeman later embraced radical politics and became sympathetic to labor activism, at the time he supported his father's decision to replace the striking workers from out of town.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ernest Seeman, February 13, 1976. Interview B-0012. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ERNEST SEEMAN:
Linotype had been invented, and their representative (I forget his name right now) came down from Brooklyn and sold my father one for ten thousand dollars - went in the hole for quite a while with payments. But meantime he turned out the type. And I hung around and watched the thing, and he put me to work on the machine; he thought that would be a good spot for me.
MIMI CONWAY:
On linotype?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
On linotype. It had a little dummy keyboard, and I practiced at night in my room and soon became proficient at it; it was interesting. And then he had a man from the factory that came down, and he was quite unscrupulous - I forget his name right now.
MIMI CONWAY:
Was it old man Whittaker? You were telling me about old man Whittaker, who was the chief typesetter, who wanted a union. Can you tell me about him?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes. Old man Whittaker was disgruntled and tired, and he'd worked hard all his life in a printing office. He needed a rest and he wasn't getting it; and he thought he ought to have more money and he wasn't getting it. And Henry Whittaker, his son, raised rabbits, and I bought rabbits from him and started me a rabbit hutch.
MIMI CONWAY:
Is old man Whittaker the one who wanted a union?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes. He was one of the bosses of the union. So he had a quarrel with me; and this fat boy from an orphanage, he wanted him to take my place and run the linotype machine and get the advantage of it. And my father didn't want that to happen; he wanted me to have it. He bought the machine and paid ten thousand dollars; he ought to have a say-so - you can see how the clash . . . And then the strike came on very suddenly and violently. They withdrew and put these ribald signs on the door.
MIMI CONWAY:
What kind of signs did they put on the door?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Oh, they drew them in the night, you know: "Old man Seeman and his boys are trying to run the town," and I don't know just what all. But pulling fun at him, you know. And he was a hard-working man.
MIMI CONWAY:
What kind of wages was he paying them? What kind of wages was your father paying these people?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Oh, he was paying good wages; he was paying full union scale.
MIMI CONWAY:
And how many people were working in the printery about then?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
I reckon about fifty.
MIMI CONWAY:
Did they all go out on strike?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Not quite all, but a good deal of them.
MIMI CONWAY:
And what did your father do?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
He put an ad in the Statesville paper, I think it was, saying he wanted all the hands that he could get (you know, good printers), and we would pay them good wages. And they began to come in; that's when that Robert Patterson came in. He was a good printer and he hung on for several years.
MIMI CONWAY:
Did your father lock the other workers out? Did your father have a lock-out?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes.
MIMI CONWAY:
Ok. And how did you feel about this strike in the Seeman printery?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Well, I was mixed up. I was trying to straighten out my ideas of right and wrong. From our side that was right; everything we did was right, and everything they did was wrong. But from their side it was different.
MIMI CONWAY:
But did you feel angry at them? What were your own feelings?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes, we'd been very friendly, and they'd come out to our house for Sunday dinner.
MIMI CONWAY:
The workers?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
And then suddenly to turn against us, we didn't see the sense in that, but they did. They were bound by union rules.
MIMI CONWAY:
Did you have strong angry feelings about it? I mean, did you feel they had wronged your father, or how did you feel?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Well, that's the difference: that's the clash between union and non-union, between right and wrong. [Interruption]
MIMI CONWAY:
How did you personally feel about unions at the time of the strike?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Well, I dealt so largely in fantasy and romance and travel and books that I was kind of aloof from the rest. I wanted the whole thing; I figured I'd build a business and be socially inclined, and freeze them all out - one of those big mistakes.
MIMI CONWAY:
Because this is the period when you were interested in making money?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
And it didn't work.