Labor Review Centennial, 1907-2007
The 1935 Strutwear strike: 'The stories of the workers are different'
From the Minneapolis Labor Review, May 24, 2007
By Elizabeth Faue
In the summer of 1935, Farmer-Labor Party member Oscar Hawkins marvelled at the happenings in Minneapolis. Everywhere, discontented workers brought the labor movement to life. Even the Strutwear Company, the public enemy of labor unions, was faced with a strike. As Hawkins reported, “the Strutwear Knitting Works had a sudden and lively strike ten days ago — still on. It is so hard to get the straight of the various conditions. The employers tell the newspapers their story... Stories of the workers are different.”
City newspapers of the time printed many lively tales of companies being held hostage by radical unionists. It was a common practice to leave strikes unreported or suddenly stop coverage or report that the employees returned to work. The Minneapolis Labor Review, however, told different stories. For nearly eight months after Hawkins wrote his letter, the Labor Review reported on the workers and the strike in banner headlines on the front page of almost every issue.
Labor newspapers have the task of telling workers both good and bad stories about work, unions, and workers, about politicians that support labor and those who oppose it, and about companies that sign contracts and those that fight unions. In 1935, one such story was about 32 weeks of the strike at the Strutwear Knitting Company.
Since World War I, the family-owned firm had been active in the anti-union Citizens’ Alliance. In 1927 Strutwear locked out a small union of knitters. In 1930, when the state legislature sought to pass unemployment insurance, the Strutwear Company head, James Struthers, lobbied against it.
In an article on Struthers’ performance, Labor Review editor Robley Cramer described Struthers as “a florid complexioned, exceedingly pompous individual” and as a “poverty wage paying hosiery baron.”
In reporting Struthers’ testimony, Cramer noted that Struthers believed that “it was better to work for little pay than not to work at all.” When pressured under the National Recovery Act of 1933 to allow workers to organize, Strutwear brought together its knitters and told them to form a company union, rather than to risk raising wages.
The skilled knitters at Strutwear counted for less than one-eighth of the company work force. But once they formed a union, even the company union, things began to happen. When in the spring of 1935 the new unionists visited a union plant in Milwaukee, they returned to tell others about its higher pay and better working conditions. Over three-fourths of the 200 knitters then joined a local of the Hosiery Workers Union. In response, the company dismissed eight workers for union activity, and union leaders, no longer in the company’s employ, called a strike.
At that point, most workers at the Strutwear plant did not belong to the union. The 580 women who worked seaming, looping, mating and mending silk stockings and the nearly 100 “boy” toppers — had never been asked to join. On the first day of the strike, though, most workers honored the picket line. On the day of the strike, differences among workers didn’t count; union or non-union, men and women held the line. The “gospel of unity and unionism” of the 1930s had reached even those outside.
The working men and women of Strutwear gathered at union headquarters during the strike. They talked, played cards, and waited to picket. One writer noted that “never had been a group of boys and girls [he] took more pride in working with and led than this group of young people.”
Other labor reporters commented on the militancy of pickets. In one instance, a woman picket on crutches challenged scabs on the picket line. On the fifth day of the strike, hundreds of workers from the plant and the community formed a funeral procession for the company union. Circling the plant, they carried a casket aloft. Pickets later held rites in a vacant lot across from the factory. Workers buried the old union and made way for the new.
The length of the strike left many workers without resources. They sought and sometimes received relief to support themselves while they could not work. The relief money became a political football. In early 1936, under pressure from city employers, the city welfare board denied hundreds of men and women their relief allowances, as a means of getting them back to work. Workers picketed the relief office to demand “that no relief client, man, woman, single, married or homeless be required to accept work unless at union wages.”
The Hennepin County Farmer-Labor Women’s Club protested 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.” While the women were “heartily in favor of seeing that these girls are employed,” they condemned the board for forcing women back to work. The board yielded to public outcry and those pushed off the relief roles once again became eligible.
During the strike, working men and women generally supported the Strutwear strikers. Inspired by the reports in the Labor Review and other labor papers, they organized dances for strike relief, staffed a commissary, and donated to the strike fund. They also helped walk the picket line. The Central Labor Union and the Labor Review backed the strike fully, and editor Cramer helped to coordinate strike strategy. The Women’s League Against the High Cost of Living organized a boycott of Strutwear Goods, and the Farm Holiday Association sent in trucks of food for those on strike. The Minneapolis General Drivers 574 blocked the company from removing its equipment and goods from the plant in December of 1935. The goods were eventually moved, but the delay strengthened the strikers’ morale.
After the confrontation between the truckers and the company, there was more violence on the picket line. Police arrested some strikers and beat others. Several were injured. Facing escalating strike violence, Governor Floyd B. Olson called in the National Guard to prevent the company from opening the plant. The company then sued the governor, the mayor, and the union for obstructing trade and ignoring a court injunction. Still, the strike continued. In April of 1936, after eight months of holding out, Strutwear company agreed to most of the strikers’ demands. The strike was won. This long strike created the opportunity for the Hosiery Union to broaden its scope. At the conclusion of the strike, membership had grown to more than 700, including nearly 500 women. The Hosiery Workers Union — which had long excluded women and younger men as members — now rushed to recruit them to its ranks. By the end of the following year, Strutwear workers voted for a closed shop. New contracts brought higher wages and a new respect for the labor movement.
Elizabeth Faue is professor of history at Wayne State University. She is the author of Community of Suffering and Struggle: Women, Men and the Labor Movement in Minneapolis, 1915-1945 (1991), on which this article is based. She also wrote Writing the Wrongs: Eva Valesh and the Rise of Labor Journalism (2002). She is a Minneapolis native and a third-generation union member.