Sewell Avery thrown out

In 1944, America’s largest retailer, Montgomery Ward & Company was beset by a labor dispute. A strike which had dragged on into its fourth month deeply concerned the White House, which was worried about the problems at the mail-order giant having an adverse effect of the delivery of goods in wartime and the inflation.

The Roosevelt Administration pressured both the local Chicago Montgomery Ward union as well as the company’s management, headed by Sewell Avery. Puganious Avery was brought into Montgomery Ward by J.P.Morgan bank amidst the Great Depression to turn the retailer around. A scion of a powerful lumber family, he was also a leading figure in right-wing, anti-New Deal movement and viewed unions as subversive conspiracies that stripped property owners of their constitutional rights. He wasn’t about to give in.

While the union called off its strike, Avery still refused to negotiate, claiming that the union did not represent the majority of workers He denounced the White House of interfering with private enterprise and prepared for a prolonged strike by hiring high school-aged scabs. The government sent in Commerice Department bureacrats to seize and operate Montgomery Ward’s Chicago properties.

The Commerce Department lacked the War Department’s experience with seizures and largely bungled the operation. Under Secretary of Commerce Wayne C. Taylor was given a copy of the
War Department plant seizure manual and a short briefing from Army experts less than an hour before he was about to leave to direct the takeover. The War Department, which wanted nothing to do with the seizure, however, was put in the unenviable position of having to supply troops.

Avery was informed of the decision to seize the properties but stubbornly, he still went to work the next day as usual. His forcible ejection by two soldiers — Sergant Jacob Lepak of Milwaukee and Private Cecil Dies of Nashville — would become a part of American folklore. Life magazine noted, “If a Montgomery Ware press agent and a great historian had plotted and planned for years, they could never have improved on the picture.”

Avery went out denoucing Attorney General Francis Biddle, who had flown to meet with him and try to avert a showdown, “To hell with the government, you… New Dealer!”

Many photographers — William Pauer of Chicago Times, Ed Geisse of Chicago Tribune — were there to capture the moment, but the photo of the day was made by Harry Hall for AP. For more than anything, Hall had to thank the AP for his photo becoming famous: the AP was the first to transmit the photo. Hall remembered:

I had my Speed Graphic ready and was just waiting around, when all of a sudden the front door opened and two soldiers came out carrying Sewell Avery. I made a long shot and then several others, following the three men down the street. They stopped in front of Avery’s chauffeur-driven car, and let him down. He was smiling as he jumped into the auto and I made some more photos.

The photo above would soon be on newspaper frontpages across the country. “Troops Seize Montgomery Ward Plant,” declared the front page of the Washington Post.” Charles S. Dewey, a former banker and Chicago congressman, demanded an investigation and denounced it as ‘Un-American’ and befitting ‘Gestapo methods’. Senator Harry Bryd of Virgina, a leading opponent of FDR, called it, “an outrageous abuse of power.”

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The next day Avery joked, “I’ve been fired before in my life, but this is the first time they carried me out feet first”. Having seized the business, the Commerce Department had no idea how to run a $600-million, 78,000 people organization. It would quickly return it to Avery, but would have to conduct another seizure eight mouths later, with Montgomery Ward still intractable in its labor dispute. This time, Roosevelt issued an executive order seizing all of the retailer’s property nationwide. The following year, Truman would end the seizure. The public gained the impression that the government had illegally seized Montgomery Ward, and the photo of defiant Avery led out by soldiers contributed to this criticism and ridicule.

As for Avery, he didn’t much have the last laugh. Fearing that there would be more depression after World War II (as depressions usually followed wars), he refused to open any new stores and even not permit renovation of existing stores (he even refused repainting costs). His disregard for labor was also enduring — unlike Sears, he resisted pension plans, insurance and profit sharing with employees. By 1951, Sears would have double the business volume of Montgomery Ward, not only having surpassed Ward in retail stores but also managing to buy up better locations. The Board forced his resignation in 1954, but Montogomery Ward never regained its former lead position.

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