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Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Kaul Clay Riot of 1935

The Toronto sky was dark gray and roiled, and a cold wind was stirring up north.  On the the morning of April 17, 1935, four days before Easter Sunday, inside the coal-heated north end schools of Lincoln and St. Joseph's, the children were fidgety, eagerly awaiting the hour of the final bell granting them a short spring vacation for the holy day.
Meanwhile, less than a quarter-mile west, pickets held their posts at the entrances of Kaul Clay Manufacturing where this local of United Clay and Brick Workers of America had been on strike since April 1, the union asking for a closed shop, a check-off system and a nickel raise an hour from an industry whose laborers averaged earning four dollars a day in the middle of the Great Depression.  The work stoppage at Kaul was one of 15 Eastern Ohio clay operations shut down from the strike, with nearly 4,000 workers idled.
The strikers had drastically slowed production of clay pipes and other vitreous clay products manufactured at Kaul.  Pant manager Jimmy Dyer, a certified public accountant recently relocated from Pittsburgh, brought in an estimated 18 to 50 replacement workers and as many as ten special deputized guards armed with .38 caliber pistols, three high-powered rifles, two sawed-off shotguns and one Colt machine gun, as well as canisters of tear gas.
"Scabs" organized labor called such replacement workers during that period, and on the day shift of April 17, the replacement workers were busy preparing orders to ship.
The 200 idled Kaul Clay workers had plenty of support in Jefferson County, especially with organized labor from Union Clay in Empire, Stratton Clay of the same village, and Peerless Clay in Port Homer and the East Ohio Sewer Pipe Company from Irondale.  In fact, an estimated 200 to 300 of these sympathizers marched south down the Cleveland nad Pittsburgh Railroad tracks while a dump truck filled with clay shoppers drove from Irondale to support picketing Kaul workers.  Amongst them was Tom McKelvey, a closed union shop member who worked for Stratton Clay.
"We marched down the tracks to Kaul Clay," McKelvey said.  "'Take them out; they're non-union!'  the clay shoppers shouted.  'We're going to stop the shop!'"
McKelvey said that the objective of the marchers was to breach security, overwhelm the pipe house and then take over the press.  "If you shut down the press, you shut down the operation."
The Herald-Star estimated the mob size at 200 to 300 men.  McKelvey said that the crowd of sympathizers was more like 35.  At the onset of the strike, Jefferson County Sheriff Ray Long had informed the Kaul Clay rank-and-file that Federal law limited it to post no more than six picketers at each entrance.
Whatever the number of organized labor and sympathizers present, superintendent Dyer, his management team and special security guards were prepared to repel them.
"About 1 p.m. a crowd of strikers, a hundred or more, came down the railroad from the direction of Port Homer," the Steubenville Herald-Star quoted Charles Merryman, a Jefferson County sheriff's deputy.  "They came to my gate and demanded admittance.  They said they wanted to talk to the men working in the plant to try to induce them to quit work.
"I would not allow them to enter and told them to go away before someone got shot.  They went to another gate and were told the same thing."
The clay shoppers split up, some of them rushing up an unguarded embankment parallel to the tracks, then into the pipe yard, only to be greeted by 150 gun shots.
"We could hear bullets hitting in the pipe piles," McKelvey said.  "There were at least three snipers up there.  It was mass confusion.
"Then I heard, 'Got two men down there!'"
Twelve feet from McKelvey on the ground lay Andy Lastivka, of Port Homer and Peerless Clay, mortally wounded by a .38 caliber bullet.  Not far from the fallen clay shopper was another stricken clay worker, Andy Straka, shot in the leg.  Straka would soon recover at East Liverpool Hospital, as did four other union partisans, but Straka would carry the bullet in his leg for the remainder of his life.  Jefferson County Coroner Charles Wells ruled Lastivka's death a homicide.
The day following the riot, Dyer issued his first statement, accusing the pickets of opening fire on employees and guards and that no shots were fired by any company official.
"Dyer also asserted that the strike which started April 1, does not have the sympathy of a majority of the workers and blames outsiders for the tradgedy..." the Herald-Star reported.
Jefferson County Prosecuter Arthur L. Hooper questioned the Kaul Clay deputies and another 25 witnesses and determined every shooting casuality occurred on company property while finding no evidence that any of the pickets who invaded the plant were armed.  Already warned by Sheriff Long not to arm themselves, many of the pickets rushed past the gates April 17 guarded by deputies Cyrus Cook and Charles Merryman threw back their coats and said, "I got no gun, look."
According to Joe Lastivka, who was three years of age at the time of his father's death, neither his father nor Straka breeched Kaul property.  "He was just standing on the railroad tracks and so was Straka.  He was struck in the chest with a bullet they think was from a security guard from a roof or window."
"It was the first time anyone used gun fire to stop a strike," McKelvey said.  "Spectators across the tracks thought they were using blanks.  Dyer was new to the area and big anti-union.  He wanted to show off."
No matter who fired first at whom, the death of Andy Lastivka became cause celebre within the clay region of Eastern Ohio.  His death was not only a result of the labor movement sweeping across the country, but also symbolized the solidarity of Eastern European immigrants, particularly Slovaks, many of whom served in World War I and now desired acceptance and respect as American citizens while manning some of the hardest and lowest paying jobs within the industry.
Andy Lastivka, a husband and father of two young children, was interred on Easter Sunday at Toronto Union Cemetary before a crowd of 3,000 people who had marched from St. Joseph's Greek Catholic Church.
The parade of solidarity from Port Homer and Stratton to Toronto was so large that highway officials had to shut down Ohio Route Seven and detour motorists through rural roads.
Even the local law agencies tended to side with the labor movement after Lastivkas death.  During the only incident at Kaul to occur since the troubles of April 17, a truck driver hauling finished products from Kaul sometime during May was halted by a barricade of 40 to 50 pickets--an illegal assembly.  Dyer telephoned Sheriff Long, who responded that he had no men available to help.  Dyer also called Toronto Police Chief Thomas Wilson, who arrived at the scene alone.
Wilson asked the truck driver whether he had a driver's license, and the trucker answered he did not.  Wilson then ordered the driver to back up and unload the pipe, but permitted him to depart with the empty truck.
Meanwhile, Dyer and other managers of the clay industry negotiated with the United Clay and Brick Workers through federal mediators at Uhrichsville.  On June 10, 54 days after they went on strike, the union settled for a two cents an hour raise, no check-off system and no closed shop.  Dyer fired some union officials upon their return to work.
No one was convicted for any of the April 17 shootings.  Lastivka's widow Anna did not receive any monetary compensation for her husband's wrongful death.  She and her young children went on to live with her mother in Stratton where son Joe helped at his grandmother's grocery store.
"I worked at Union Clay during my junior and senior years of high school," Joe Lastivka said.  "When I graduated I went to the Kaul office and asked if I could see Jimmy Dyer.  I wanted a job.  The secretary said he wasn't there, but I could see somebody move in his office.  I just walked in.  'You know who I am, don't you'" I  said.
"He said, 'I'm not hiring.'  Dyer said that I would destroy his building and cause trouble.  What did I know?  I was only 18."
In addition to his legacy as a tough negotiator, Jimmy Dyer and Kaul Clay had philanthropic reputations, donating the property for Dyer Country Club and the 900-acre Kaul Wildlife Area, as well as being one of the main financial contributors for the 1948 construction of the new St. Francis School.
In 1981, Kaul Clay ceased operations.

1 comment:

David Straka said...

I was so surprised to find this site and this particular article! I am David Straka and Andy Straka was my Grandfather. I remember him tellling me this story. There is just one slight discrepancy, he was actually shot just above the hip and the bullet was lodged in his back in a muscle near his spine. The doctors did not remove it for fear he would be paralyzed by the operation. He eventually retired from Kaul Clay. My e-mail is Thanks again!