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Women’s History Month

1930s: The women were fearless

Published Mar 27, 2008 8:31 PM

Emma Tenayuca

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 went silent.

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 deportation.

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 this day.”