‘United by the Sit-In’ by Helen S. Powell from Women Today. Vol. 2 No. 3. July, 1937.

Photo taken on the 130th day of occupation.

What would end up being the longest of all of the great wave of sit-down strikes that swept the United States in 1937 was this, relatively small, but tenacious battle of 130 cigar workers in New York City. Helen S. Powell was a striker with United Cigar Workers International-C.I.O. Local 273. This was written on April 28th after ten weeks of occupation, the sit-down would end voluntarily, and inconclusively, on September 10, 1937 after 149 days. All organized cigar workers, mostly men in a heavily female workforce, were in the A.F.L. until the United Cigar Workers was formed in this, and other 1937 New York strikes. Quickly growing to 15,000 members it would shortly join others in the C.I.O.’s United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers’ Union.

‘United by the Sit-In’ by Helen S. Powell from Women Today. Vol. 2 No. 3. July, 1937.

WE in the H. Anton Bock Cigar Company, 1228 Second Avenue, New York City, are now beginning the tenth week of a sit-down strike, and it is interesting to note the manner in which the women of today-especially the foreign born-react to it. We have 130 persons, chiefly women, on strike in this plant and this writer is the only American whose parents was not born outside of the United States. There are many nationalities represented here: Italians, Spanish, Russian, Hungarian, Bohemian, Slovenian, Mexican, as well as Jew and Gentile.

Most of these women had almost starved themselves in order to feed their young. Some are widows and some have husbands and children who are unemployed and yet too proud to apply for home relief. The wages they received (I won’t say earned, for if they were paid what they earned they would have had sufficient for all) were inadequate to support even one person decently. The Old Age Security record will show that from six to ten cents were deducted from our pay each week and that proves just what a degraded condition existed here.

But as small as the pay was, they had been made to feel by employer and foremen that they were very fortunate to have a job at all. And so, when union representatives began distributing leaflets at the entrance of the shop, telling us to organize, a great many women, and men, too, were afraid even to reach out their hands to take them lest the “boss” see it and discharge them. But some of the more daring did smuggle those leaflets in and read them and their long pent-up resentment resulted in this sit-down strike.

Some of us, understanding the law which gives us the right to organize, explained it to those who could not read. We endeavored to instruct them fully before we took action and this was successful. We sat down 100 per cent united when our employer refused to negotiate with our union representatives. We have beds and food supplied by the union. We have entertainment, also.

We have been here ten weeks and the women never complain despite the hardships they are enduring, being away from their families. Yet, I know there are many pathetic stories they could tell, but these grim and aged, stoical, determined women are staking everything, sacrificing everything on this movement.

Looking back some five, ten or twenty years it would have been impossible to have brought this about. But now, even though we speak different languages, we have a common understanding, a common cause and all are kind and sympathetic to one another. Old race hatreds brought from their home lands are forgotten. When we win this strike, and we will win, we will have accomplished more than just an increase in wages. We will have united not only as workers but as human beings.

Helen S. Powell, One of the Cigar Strikers.

The Working Woman, ‘A Paper for Working Women, Farm Women, and Working-Class Housewives,’ was first published monthly by the Communist Party USA Central Committee Women’s Department from 1929 to 1935, continuing until 1937. It was the first official English-language paper of a Socialist or Communist Party specifically for women (there had been many independent such papers). At first a newspaper and very much an exponent of ‘Third Period’ politics, it played particular attention to Black women, long invisible in the left press. In addition, the magazine covered home-life, women’s health and women’s history, trade union and unemployment struggles, Party activities, as well poems and short stories. The newspaper became a magazine in 1933, and in late 1935 it was folded into The Woman Today which sought to compete with bourgeois women’s magazines in the Popular Front era. The Woman today published until 1937. During its run editors included Isobel Walker Soule, Elinor Curtis, and Margaret Cowl among others.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/wt/v4n05-jul-1933-WW-R7524-R2.pdf

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