On November 27, 1937, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) debuted its play “Pins and Needles,” which would become the longest running musical of the 1930s. This cultural form of labor feminism at a time when organized labor was dominated by male workers is a vital and important moment both in the cultural history of work but also in the history of women and work.
The ILG was founded in 1900 and despite conservative leadership, became the union that New York garment workers organized in during the Uprising of the 20,000 in 1909 and the aftermath of the Triangle Fire in 1911. During the 1920s and early 1930s, like many New York based unions, it was riven with strife between radicals and anti-radicals, leading to labyrinthine power struggles not worth revisiting here except to say that the constantly shifting ideology of the Communist Party ultimately hurt the radical cause. Eventually David Dubinsky rose to lead the ILG in 1932. Dubinsky consolidated control quickly, ruling the union with an iron fist, which was ultimately undemocratic but also turned it into a functional organization instead of one constantly in turmoil from infighting among political factions. The union also was dominated by male leadership despite the fact that the large majority of its membership was women. Labor feminism would struggle to develop internally in such a structure.
The ILG’s Educational Department sought to create cultural productions and artistic outlets for its members that included art, dance, and theater. In 1934, the Educational Department reorganized and created a theater troupe made up of union members. These weren’t professional actors. The were just everyday women working in the garment industry whose union thought it would be useful to enhance their creativity, an idea that is far away from unionism of recent decades. Louis Schaffer led this effort and he had a vision to bring the labor movement to the extremely popular cultural form of Broadway productions. ILG president David Dubinsky thought this was a great idea. Schaffer recruited professionals to write the play and train the actors. A cast of 55 mostly female garment workers were trained to become actors. This took time to accomplish. He could have brought in professionals, but in his determination to make this a truly working-class production, he had to bring the workers up to standard in their acting ability. This would ultimately delay the production’s opening by about 18 months. It finally opened to the public on November 27, 1937, after several practice performances.
The production was written and directed by men, but centered women operating in the larger political struggles of the time. Schaffer wanted Pins and Needles to entertain working class people by focusing on working class issues. In order to accomplish this mission, Pins and Needles did not have a set script. The workers themselves constantly reworked the songs, making them about themselves. There were anti-Mussolini songs and other songs about the international anti-fascist struggle, but as the play developed over its many performances, it ultimately became much more about the women and their lives. Labor feminism became the play’s central theme.
The critics largely loved the show. It had good tunes, catchy lyrics, and everything that the public would want in a popular production. At first, it only played on the weekends because the workers were still full-time employees in garment factories. Eventually, they were able to obtain leaves from their jobs to perform full time. The cast also expanded into a second set for late afternoon shows that could reach workers who could not attend in the evenings.
As the labor politics of the 1930s often went, there was a lot of talk about racial equality within the ILG and with the cast of Pins and Needles, but not much actual racial equality in practice. The first black cast member was Olive Pearman, who had only a small supporting role as a seamstress. Black unionists sharply criticized Schaffer for ignoring black voices and he later did add a couple of black cast members, but no Latino cast members were ever hired on the production. Other cast members were pressured to suppress their Jewish identities and even change their names. And of course when the production was on the road, it was subject to local segregationist laws, which it did not try to challenge. The cast itself was quite leftist, although Schaffer himself was anti-communist and some fired cast members claimed they were redbaited out of the production. Dorothy Tucker, one of the actors, remembered, “there were a few socialists and a few communists among us.”
In March 1938, the cast went to Washington DC to play at the White House for Franklin Roosevelt. The first road show began in April 1938 with shows in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, among other cities. As demand grew, more workers joined the production, but Schaffer also brought more professional and semi-professional actors into the production, causing tensions behind the scenes. The first road show ended in January 1939, after 319 performances in 34 cities. The cast and show continued to change and professionalize, as most of the workers did eventually have to head back to their jobs in the garment factories. New versions of the production formed until finally, after 1104 performances, the show closed in New York in June 1940. It then went on the road for one last tour, closing for good in Los Angeles in May 1941.
As World War II began and the left-leaning unions moved toward supporting the war effort, Popular Front cultural productions began to fade, collapsing completely in the Cold War backlash after the war. No labor plays ever followed up on Pins and Needles. I can’t really argue that the failure to center working class cultural productions really made much difference in terms of shaping the future of the labor movement. However, the end of a creative labor movement seeking the broader production of a specific working class culture is ultimately something lost.
For more on Pins and Needles in the broader context of the Popular Front, see Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century.
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