On September 13, 1932, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers led a successful strike of garment workers in Baltimore. This strike was a sign of the growing organizing of the 1930s that would eventually change the world for much of the American working class.
The garment industry was decline in Baltimore even before the Great Depression. In the late 1910s, it was a major garment production center, but was already suffering from capital mobility by the early 1930s, as factories closed in the unionized north and moved to the nonunion south. This devastated the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, one of the leading garment unions. At its height in the late 1910s, it had about 10,000 members in Baltimore. But by 1932, it had only a fraction of that, maybe 1,000. What garment production that was still in Baltimore largely existed in non-union shops, an intentional move by the companies.
By 1932, the ACW, in dire straits, decided to engage in aggressive organizing. It was considered a desperate ploy, even by ACW leaders such as its president Sidney Hillman. Quite a bit of the ACW leadership came out of Baltimore shops, including Dorothy Jacobs Bellanca and Hyman Blumberg. They started an intensive grassroots organizing effort. By this time, the workforce was a polyglot set of workers, almost all of whom were women. The largest group were Jewish, but with significant numbers of Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, and Bohemian workers as well. By the early 30s, with the decline of immigration, these were mostly Americanized workers, either having lived here for a long time or the children of immigrants.
The workers took to the union like fish to water. This worked like a charm, much to the surprise of Hillman, who expressed amazement at the number of workers who showed up to hear him speak when he arrived. Soon, it was like a fire had transformed workers. They wanted to strike. The ACW moved fast. It led the workers out of strike with a concrete set of demands. They wanted a pay raise, better working conditions, and union recognition. Immediately 200 manufacturers saw their employees walk off the job. Some of them weren’t even targeted by the ACW. The workers struck anyway. Mass meetings of up to 5,000 people took place.
The police cracked down as the police so commonly did. Hundreds of workers were arrested. But flooding the jails can sometimes lead to solidarity rather than fear and workers kept up the union campaign both inside and outside the jail cell. Schoeneman’s was one of the largest manufacturers. They got a judge to issue an injunction. The workers chose to simply ignore it. Hundreds were arrested and this threatened the future of the ACW, but the union was all-in on this strike and nothing was going to stop it. One worker-leader, Sara Barron, was arrested thirteen different times in the strike as she led what was called the “Activity Group,” which was basically a direct action shock group to enter into any tricky situation to raise the stakes.
The community came up big time to support the union. The city had a long tradition of socialism, especially in its sizable Jewish community. Rabbi Edward Israel led a community coalition that included leaders of many faiths, college professors, and other community organization leaders, and did it smartly. Oh, also, the coalition included such less than radical organizations as the YMCA and the League of Women’s Voters. They publicly bemoaned the need for a strike and said it was bad for the city, but then told city leaders that if they wanted this terrible thing to end, they’d better intervene on the side of the workers. Their strategy was to suggest arbitration. The ACW was totally fine with that. The employers rejected it entirely. That really helped place the union in the right place with the public, as people began blaming recalcitrant employers instead of militant workers.
This all had a significant impact. Mayor Howard Jackson quickly put together a commission to investigate the issue, led by Johns Hopkins professor and old Progressive Jacob Hollander. This collected testimony from the workers, while the employers refused to cooperate. So the final report was openly pro-worker. What the report also did was publicize the working conditions in these factories. Most of your middle class really had no idea what was happening in these factories, which were really sweatshops. Knowing about the wages, hours, and working conditions these young women went through–many of whom were really kids–did shock the sensibility of the middle class, placing even more pressure on the companies. Manufacturers eventually began to cave and the whole industry facade of resisting unions collapsed by the end of 1932. Now, 70 percent of the workers in the Baltimore garment industry were under union contracts. It wasn’t a total victory–the two largest companies continued to refuse and one closed its factory and moved it to rural Pennsylvania in response. But it was as close to a total victory as you could get for the time.
By the end of the strike, the entire ACW was reinvigorated, not only in Baltimore. It entered a new organizing phase. It also became flexible enough to deal with new challenges. When the Roosevelt administration began the National Recovery Administration in 1933, the ACW quickly saw where this could hurt its workers and it immediately intervened to ensure its members would not be hurt by this. That included striking when it felt threatened, which happened several times. This continued local support for the ACW and it became a cherished institution among the Baltimore working class during the Depression. It also started organizing among Black workers, which were not part of the shops where the strike had taken place. It began placing serious emphasis on interracial organizing. That took a lot–there were plenty of reasons Black workers didn’t trust white-led unions. But the work had to be done and they made a lot of progress in coming years.
The union remained small, but Hillman would quickly lead his union into the CIO after its 1937 split from the AFL and become the most important labor leader in the Roosevelt administration by World War II. None of that is possible without the Baltimore strike and others like it that placed new emphasis on mass organizing.
I borrowed from Ander Skotnes, A New Deal for All? Race and Class Struggles in Depression-Era Baltimore to write this post. Previous posts in this series are archived here.