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This Day in Labor History: October 12, 1933

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On October 12, 1933, Mexican workers went on strike in the Los Angeles garment industry. This was a foundational moment in Mexican American labor history, one that presaged their growing presence in the American labor movement as the twentieth century went on.

The National Recovery Administration was not successful in any way, but Section 7(a) gave workers hope. For many of them, it was a sign that the Roosevelt administration wanted them to unionize. That really wasn’t true per se, but they acted upon it and in doing so, changed the course of American history. This is common theme in labor history, but we usually talk about it around the four great strikes of 1934 that laid the groundwork for the National Labor Relations Act in 1935–the Teamsters in Minneapolis, the autoworkers in Toledo, the longshoremen in San Francisco, and the textile workers in the South and a bit in New England. But they were hardly the only workers who saw the NRA and realized there were new opportunities to organize.

Moreover, when we discuss the garment trade in labor history, we usually focus on the Northeast and then the South for good reason. The Northeast saw the Uprising of the 20,000, the Triangle Fire, the epic strikes in Lawrence and Paterson, etc. Then the industry moved to the South to avoid these socialist immigrant workers and it became tremendously hard to organize, with unions only succeeding in the 1970s and early 80s, by which time the industry was already fleeing to Mexico.

But there was a significant garment trade in Los Angeles, with Mexican-American workers laboring in sweatshop conditions. They wanted change and when the NRA came into effect, they acted upon that. That employers in this extremely anti-union city used the Depression to effectively declare war on their own workers, slashing wages and worsening conditions, only reinforced this outrage. Mexican workers made up about three out of four workers in the L.A. garment trade. Forty percent of dressmakers made less than $5 a week and the city’s sweatshops had horrible ventilation, making the “sweat” part of the term have more than one meaning.

In the late summer of 1933, a group of rank and file dressmakers appealed to Rose Pesotta, a long time organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union about starting a campaign. Pesotta had to run this by ILG head David Dubinsky. He supported it but was skeptical. There were many new workers in the industry and there was also racism, with the basic belief that Mexican workers couldn’t understand American unionism. But if there was any truth to that, they learned fast, in part because Pesotta was fluent in Spanish and she hired fluent Spanish organizers.

A new local, ILGWU Local 96 was formed. They started to organize. The employers hired undercover cops to bust the union and claimed they would have union members deported. But the door-to-door organizing was effective. On September 27, they held a mass meeting where they laid out a number of demands–the end of homework, the minimum wage rising to match NRA codes, a 35 hour work week, union recognition, the adjudication of future shopfloor disputes by both labor and employer representatives, and other demands. By this time, the LA Central Labor Council had taken notice and began to come around to actively supporting the workers. With that support, they declared a strike to begin on October 12.

On that date, 1,100 workers walked off the job. Employers won injunctions, but the workers didn’t care. They struck shops anyway, encouraging workers to join them. There was some “violence,” which was pretty minor, mostly I think broken windows and the like, maybe a few fights between strikers and scabs. But that was enough for Los Angeles to deploy its infamous Red Squad to “police” the strike, which meant beating up workers. On October 17th, the mostly male cloak workers, who had joined the strike, signed a separate deal that gave them union recognition but also did nothing to help the dressmakers, who had specific problems of exploitation as women.

The workers held tight against overwhelming odds, including the threat of deportation. The newspapers published all sorts of anti-union stories, as they had always been committed to LA’s open shop status. But all of this, including the policing of their strike, only increased the solidarity among the workers, who really were determined to win.

Finally, on October 30, the garment makers agreed to mediation and a federal arbitration board stepped in. The ILG, who didn’t have a lot of money to pay strike benefits, readily agreed as well. The arbitrators came up with a final agreement on November 6. Strikers were allowed to return to the jobs and could not be fired for it. The dressmakers would have to abide by NRA standards on wages and hours. They also won the right to a union and the right to future arbitration of labor disputes. They did not win union recognition, but federal labor boards were really not going to grant that right before 1935.

While this sounds like a good solid victory, it did not turn out that way. The employers basically challenged the workers do anything about it when they fired strikers or didn’t pay NRA code wages. And as was so often the case, the mediation boards really didn’t want to intervene here any more than they absolutely had to, so employers absolutely still held the upper hand. Moreover, the city’s communists tried to divide the workers, constantly insulting the ILG as sellouts and saying, somewhat correctly, that arbitration was never going to help workers.

And still…the workers continued to organize and hold strong in the face of all of this. Continued struggle mattered and they finally worked the employers down, especially as the Roosevelt administration moved toward labor law reform. Finally, the workers won NRA codes, union recognition, and health and disability benefits. ILG Local 96 grew rapidly. Things still weren’t great, largely because Dubinsky and his men controlled a union where the vast majority of members were women but where those women were excluded from leadership. In fact, Dubinsky screwed these workers over specifically. He had promised that they could have their own local that promoted the causes of Mexican garment workers. However, he reneged of this because he wanted to assert more central control and focus more organizing Los Angeles generally. He was a flawed union leader.

But this was the first time that the unions had organized Mexican women. They proved to be astute unionists and this laid the groundwork for a larger level of participation by Mexican Americans in the labor movement in coming decades.

I borrowed from Zaragosa Vargas’ Labor Rights are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth Century America to write this post.

This is the 456th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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