On April 4, 1936, the Strutwear strike in Minneapolis was won by the workers, a significant victory not just for the workers of Minnesota, but specifically for the women who made up most of this workforce. Moreover, this is a useful strike to explore issues of gender and working class culture in the Great Depression.
In 1934, the Teamsters local in Minneapolis, led by a group of Trotskyites that put it at odds with the international union, went on one of the most epic strikes of the Great Depression, part of that amazing, transformational year of militant organizing. This victory gave unions a lot of momentum in Minnesota and a culture of solidarity in Minneapolis developed that would have major implications of expanding that movement over the next decade.
Strutwear Knitting Company was a textile firm in Minneapolis that specialized in silk stockings. It was owned by right-wing anti-unionists. Minneapolis’ Citizens Alliance had taken the lead in violently resisting unions and Strutwear’s owners were among its leaders. Its influence was declining after the Teamsters’ victory, but it was still strong in 1935. Strutwear had resisted unionization attempts before, locking out workers who formed a union in 1927. When Minnesota attempted to pass an unemployment insurance bill in 1930, Strutwear head James Struthers took the lead in opposing it. In 1933, the National Industrial Recovery Act passed and Struthers decided to form a company union as a way of getting around Section 7(a), which seemed to grant workers the right to a union. But he struggled to control this company union.
In 1935, members of the company union visited a similar factory in Milwaukee. This factory had a union and the workers made higher wages and had better working conditions. The factory’s knitters were the most organized and when they heard about what a union could be like, over 150 out of the 200 knitters joined the American Federation of Full-Fashioned Hosiery Workers (AFFFHW). Struthers immediately fired eight leaders. The workers decided to strike.
This was a risky move for the Hosiery Workers. It had not organized much of the plant. Only the knitters, skilled men, were in the union, as was so often the case in old-school craft unionism. Moreover, this was a traditional male-dominated union that previously had not even allowed women or young boys, who made up the Strutwear workforce, into the union. But it saw the writing on the wall. Up to that point, it had not started organizing the 580 women who worked as seamers, loopers, menders, or maters. It hadn’t organized the 100 mostly young boys who worked there either. But when it called the strike, nearly all the workers refused to cross the picket line. This soon became an epic battle between the workers and the factory, which was determined not to give in. Days became weeks which became months. But while the company was able to hire scabs, the workers mostly held strong. On the fifth day of the strike, the workers held a funeral procession for the company union where they marched around the plant. Moreover, as it was a mostly female work force, it was the women who showed the most militancy and became strike leaders.
But the AFFFHW did not have much of a strike fund. The workers began to really suffer. As there was poor relief during the Great Depression, many of the workers began to apply for it to make ends meet. In early 1936, under pressure from Struthers and other employers, the city welfare board refused to extend benefits to strikers. Workers turned their ire on the welfare board. They picketed the board’s office demanding “that no relief client, man, woman, single, married or homeless be required to accept work unless at union wages.” Moreover, it was women in the community at large that led the support for the women on strike. The Hennepin County Farmer-Labor Women’s Club stated that the welfare board “ha[d] made an organized effort to force single girls who are on relief to accept jobs as domestics in homes at starvation wages, resulting in forcing these girls to accept employment at substandard wages and possibly forcing them into prostitution.”
Organized labor and the community also led relief efforts and solidarity action. That included a boycott of Strutwear led by the Women’s League against the High Cost of Living and Teamsters Local 574, the same union that had led the 1934 strike, which in December 1935 refused to allow Strutwear to move any product. Scabs eventually got it out, but it showed the community solidarity with the strikers. Men coming out in solidarity with women workers was also a big step in a society where the ideal of work and unionism was highly masculine. The HWU was hardly the only union to exclude women and many male unionists, including union leaders, thought of women workers as trivial gossipers who were not raising families like men. Women did not have the exact same concerns and demands as male workers. Unions stepped up and organized dances to raise money for the workers and farmers’ groups sent them food.
Violence began to increase between the company and the male unionists out in solidarity with the workers. Police started arresting and beating the strikers, including the women. Fearing greater violence, Minnesota’s governor, Floyd Olson, a generally pro-labor politician, called out the National Guard to close the plant entirely until the strike was settled. Struthers and the rest of the employer community was furious. For them, the role of the National Guard was to play the enforcer for the company. The idea of a neutral National Guard was anathema to them and they hated Olson for it. This moved the strike decisively in favor of the workers. Strutwear held out in the end for eight long months, but on April 4, 1936, it acceded to nearly every union demand. The AFFFHW became the bargaining agent for the workers and began to sign up women in large numbers, and not just in Minneapolis. In 1938, a women’s auxiliary within the union opened that not only included women workers, but also the wives and daughters of the male workers. Women were trained in labor history and economics and held social events. The leadership of the union was still dominated by men, but the strike and its aftermath helped open space for women in the Minneapolis labor movement.
The material for this post was borrowed from Elizabeth Faue’s Communities of Suffering and Struggle: Women, Men, and the Labor Movement in Minneapolis, 1915-1945.
This is the 351th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.