Women’s History Month
1930s: The women were fearless
Published Mar 27, 2008 8:31 PM
The 1930s were years of fierce class struggle and great advances for the
working class. Probably no decade before or since has witnessed such an
expansion of labor’s influence and strength in the U.S.
From the beginning, women were deeply involved in these struggles. As the
decade opened in the midst of the Great Depression, Unemployed Councils brought
working-class men and women together. The National Unemployed Council, with
chapters in scores of cities and towns and all but four states, successfully
fought evictions and utility shutoffs.
Paralleling unemployed organizing was the growth of the militant, communist-led
Housewives’ Leagues. According to the Web site of the National
Women’s History Museum:
“The Detroit Housewives’ League took on the meatpacking industry
itself. In 1935, the group burned a huge packinghouse in protest of high
prices, and they joined thousands of Chicago housewives in a march that shut
down that city’s entire meat industry. The Detroit black women’s
Housewives’ League was founded in 1930 by Fannie Peck, and by 1935, the
League had over 10,000 members. Nationwide, these Leagues created 75,000 jobs
for African Americans, overcoming racial discrimination and ameliorating some
of the devastating effects of the Depression.” (www.nwhm.org)
In 1937, while great struggles were already in motion, the historic victory of
the Flint sit-down strike emboldened the whole working class to take things
further. The first big sit-down of a mainly female workforce involved cigar
workers in Detroit. There were 4,000 women, most of them Polish, working in six
shops. Their grievances—confirmed by a fact-finding
commission—included working six and seven days a week for a pittance,
poor ventilation causing women to faint, and inadequate toilet facilities.
Management had told workers at Bernard Schwartz, makers of R.G. Dunn cigars, to
form a committee to present their concerns. On Jan. 7, 1937, Schwartz fired the
entire committee. By Feb. 16 a sit-down was in progress. On Feb. 19, some 2,500
cigar rollers were sitting down.
Just as the Women’s Emergency Brigade in Flint had to win over irate
wives, so too did the cigar strike have to deal with raging husbands, but the
spouses came around. By March 5 strikers at two plants were leading a victory
march of 1,000 people through the Polish community.
On March 20, however, Detroit Mayor Couzens launched a counterattack.
Detroit’s police broke down the doors of the Bernard Schwartz plant,
dragging the fighting women out by their arms, clothing and hair. Police beat
sympathizers, even throwing a pregnant woman off her porch. Three days later,
200,000 people protested in Cadillac Square. Feeling labor’s outrage,
Michigan Gov. Frank Murphy called the two sides together on April 22. The next
day every cigar shop in Detroit had a union contract.
These women cigar workers had, meanwhile, inspired other women in Detroit.
Women led takeovers at Ferry-Morse Seed and Yale and Towne Lock.
The retailer equivalent of Wal-Mart of those days was Woolworth’s. On
Feb. 27, from a balcony of the Woolworth chain’s four-story establishment
at Woodward and Grand River, an organizer for the Hotel Employees and
Restaurant Employees (HERE) blew a whistle and yelled, “Strike!
Strike!” Immediately, women servers stopped serving and cash registers
When the store manager pulled the workers into a huddle, his pleas that they
end their strike were met with a resounding, “No!” The daring
action made national news. Two days later a second Detroit store was taken, and
HERE threatened to strike all 40 Woolworth’s in the area. After seven
days inside, the youthful women had won raises, seniority rights, shorter
hours, company-provided uniforms and future hiring through the union.
The fever spread, as department store workers throughout Detroit and across the
country struck for and won union recognition. Now there was proof that service
workers could wield the sit-down weapon as effectively as factory workers.
It was not only in the workplace that the sit-down became the weapon of choice.
In many cities families on relief sat down in government offices to demand
better treatment. In San Antonio they were led by the young Emma Tenayuca,
described by Time magazine as “a slim, vivacious labor organizer with
black eyes and a Red philosophy” known by “everyone in San Antonio
as ‘La Pasionaria de Texas.’” Frequently jailed, Tenayuca led
many labor struggles, including a strike at the Finck cigar factory. One key
demand of her Workers Alliance was the right to strike without fear of
Tenayuca is best known for her leadership in the 1938 pecan shellers strike.
San Antonio was the world pecan capital. Mexican women worked 70 hours a week
for as little as 30 cents a day picking nut meat from shells by hand. The 147
shops, where 12,000 workers produced 21 million pounds of shelled pecans per
year, were closed by the strike.
One thousand strikers and supporters, including Tenayuca, were jailed. After
thirty-seven days the owners agreed to arbitration. Tenayuca later said,
“What started out as an organization for equal wages turned into a mass
movement against starvation, for civil rights, for a minimum-wage law, and it
changed the character of West Side San Antonio.”
By September 1937 the two-year-old Committee on Industrial Organization
(CIO—later changed to Congress of Industrial Organizations), had more
than 3.7 million members. Among them were half a million Black workers and
hundreds of thousands of Asians and Latin@s. There were immigrants from all
over—some 400,000 from Poland alone—and many, many women.
These women still inspire the women of their class seven decades later. As
Workers World leader Teresa Gutierrez wrote in 1999 on the occasion of
Tenayuca’s death, “Her image—striding in front of a line of
marchers or standing at a microphone shaking her fist as she stirred the
strikers to struggle on—inspires the oppressed workers of San Antonio to
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