On June 10, 1917, the São Paulo general strike began when owners at the Rodolfo Crespi cotton mill refused workers’ demands for a 25 percent wage increase. The workers went on strike, leading to a general strike through the city’s textile mills and displaying how rank and file workers often proved much more effective leaders than self-styled radicals. It also demonstrated the tremendous power of rank-and-file women workers to transform their own lives through collective struggle.
The development of industrial capitalism was a shock to the system of workers around the world, and still is today when it reaches those few places still relatively peripheral. The terrors of the system, with its alienation from labor and overall degradation of living conditions and life itself, was a very hard thing for workers to deal with. Given the radicalism of industrial capitalism, it’s hardly surprising that workers created radical ideas to deal with the problems. In some nations, the reaction was a bit more conservative. This is true of the United States which, because of its traditions of republican freeholding, had a recent past that workers could aspire to. The creation of free labor ideology retained a powerful hold on white workers for decades. But in nations where landownership was never realistic, which was most of Europe, more totalizing systems of radicalism developed. The various versions of socialism developed by Karl Marx and many others in the 19th century included anarchism. With so many people leaving Europe in the late 19th century, these ideas spread not only to the U.S. but through the Americas. That a sizable number of the migrants were political refugees helped this process. The Haymarket bombing, which came out of a group of Chicago anarchists, were almost all German immigrants. The growth of the Industrial Workers of the World, its global ambition, and the fact that it operated heavily in migratory work, just spread this further. So by the 1910s, you had the Flores Magon brothers operating in both Mexico and then the U.S. to promote the Mexican Revolution on an anarchist basis.
Such it was in Brazil as well. São Paulo developed as an industrial center in the years after 1900. Textiles became the leading industry in this city in the early 20th century, quickly leading it to become the industrial center of not only Brazil, but South America. Shoe production and processed food followed, as well as a lot of skilled metalworkers for the nation’s coffee trade and other industrial and agricultural production. World War I led to even greater industrial expansion, with working women facing the brunt of it, facing both harder factory work and much higher food prices for their second jobs as homemakers.
Anarchism had a typically slow rise among rank and file workers. In the first decades of the twentieth century, it held little appeal to the largely Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese immigrant workers. Moreover, Brazil’s homegrown anarchists were primarily concerned with attacking the Catholic Church, not exactly a winning issue with Catholic immigrants. They were also mostly men who had little to no interest in organizing women; some felt that feminism was a threat to working-class consciousness. Anarchists completely failed to organize workers during a 1907 strike, where they were just generally ignored. As World War I began, Brazil’s anarchists focused mostly on opposing the war.
But the women in the textile plants were organizing themselves, as they had a decade earlier. By May 1917, facing high prices and hard working conditions, the workers in the Crespi mill demanded a 20 percent pay increase to match rising food prices, an end to all fines from their employers laid against them for things like irregularities in the cloth, and “more respect” from their employers to both themselves and the children who worked in the mill. Management said no and 2000 workers went on strike on June 10. The women declared themselves independent of all socialist or anarchist groups, but the anarchists came to help them. It was women, not anarchists, who were the vanguard of the labor movement. The strike soon spread. On June 22, another mill followed, and then more and more. They generally had demands of 20-25 percent pay increases. They also wanted their pay coming on time, as many factories would delay delivering paychecks for 3-5 weeks after payday. Demands grew for the government to do something about food prices. Mills started to compromise but the workers, growing in number by the day, refused.
By July, workers from other sectors joined. Workers at the city’s largest beverage company walked out on July 7. At first the strike was peaceful, but as it grew and became harder to manage, violent clashes between strikers and the police grew. Much of the problem was the growth of men in the strike. The beverage workers got into clashes their first day on the line. On July 9, police killed a shoemaker. 2000 mostly women marched to honor him. They used the funeral march to spread the strike through the neighborhoods where people are still working and encourage them to come out. This truly turned it into a general strike. By July 12, 20,000 workers were on strike. A few days later, it spread to Rio De Janeiro.
At this point, the all-male anarchists stepped in to control the strike. They founded the Proletarian Defense League to negotiate for the strikers. Typically, they ignored the women who started the strike. They set large-scale demands around wages, but ignored how women were protesting against sexual harassment on the job. Calls for the abolition of night work cut into the work possibilities for women because they had to take care of their children during the day; this was included without their approval. Still, the strike continued to spread and finally the industrialists were forced to settle. A group of journalists served as the mediators and the final deal was largely good for the workers. All workers received a 20 percent raise, amnesty for all strikers, freedom for workers to organize, prompt payment of wages, and vague promises to improve living conditions in the city. With the Brazilian state not really backing the industrialists, the groundwork was there for a real win, even if many of the women’s complaints were ignored.
Despite anarchists’ inability to understand the needs of women workers, women’s clear leadership in the strike changed radicals’ focus to a greater focus on the real lived conditions of Brazilian workers, including women. They began to run articles in their newspapers on sexual harassment in the mills. São Paulo’s women continued leading the anarchists, as opposed to the other way around. In October 1917, 300 women struck when their employer would not stop sexually harassing them. They started the organizing on their own and then turned to the anarchists for assistance and publicity. Over the next several years, women’s activism continued leading the workers’ movement, whether in unions or out of them when they the unions were not addressing their needs. They did not always win these strikes, but they used a variety of resistance tools to make their demands heard.
This post borrowed from Joel Wolfe, “Anarchist Ideology, Worker Practice: The 1917 General Strike and the Formation of the São Paulo Working Class” in the November 1997 issue of Hispanic American Historical Review.
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