Auto-Lite Strikers’ Signatures Preserved on Picket

Robert Mullen

When the United Auto Workers (UAW-CIO) went on strike at the Electric Auto-Lite plant in January 1956, they faced the prospect of picketing their employer during some cold winter weather. Signs were printed reading “Local 396 On Strike,” stapled both sides of a 36-inch stick, and handed out to the strikers. Union members rotated on a 24 hour schedule, each taking a two hour stint in the picket line, so nobody spent too much time in the cold. Yet every member had to participate in order to receive their “strike pay,” a stipend provided by the union while the workers were not being paid.

One striker, Archie Currie, was a former president of the local union. When he took his turn in the picket line, he had seventy-one of his fellow workers sign the stick that held the strike sign. The names were written in a column on the picket stick, which was dated January 12, 1956. First on the list was Alvin Danielson, the president of Local 396. Among the seventy-one signatures are surnames familiar to many long-time residents of La Crosse, both men and women. Mr. Currie stored that signed picket stick in his home for the rest of his life. When his daughter, Karen Hoel came across the board recently, she decided that it was an important piece of local history and donated it to the La Crosse County Historical Society.

The Electric Auto-Lite plant on the north side provided work for some 1300 people at the time. They produced gauges, controls, and equipment for automobiles, providing them to the auto manufacturers. The company began in Minneapolis early in the century, but moved to La Crosse in 1911. Its name changed several times, but most residents referred to it as “the Gauge.”

During World War II, the company hired many female workers to replace the men who had gone into the military. They made gauges for airplanes and were considered essential for the war effort. Following the war, many of the women stayed on and became members of the UAW-CIO.

The 1956 strike was not about salaries, but it was a disagreement about changes proposed by the company regarding dismissal of employees. Labor and management went to arbitration with the U.S. Mediation and Conciliation Service in Chicago later that week, and after a second meeting with them in the Hotel Stoddard in La Crosse, the two hammered out an agreement. Union workers accepted the new contract and the strike ended after eleven days, ending January 23, the strikers moved inside, and the picket signs disappeared—except for this one stick preserved by Archie Currie.

This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.