Melissa Ford. American Communist History. Volume 16, Issue 1/2. March-June 2017.
In the summer of 1933, Claude Lightfoot, a Black Communist on Chicago’s South Side, witnessed an incredible scene. A group of striking African American women met with a local Black politician, Oscar DePriest, to discuss a strike settlement. DePriest was the most influential Black politician in Chicago, and when one of the strike organizers, E. B. Girsch, a white Jewish Communist, confronted him on the platform, the Black women began to shout their support for the Communist over their elected representative. “We want Girsch! We want Girsch!” they chanted as they left the meeting hall with the Communists and other white strike organizers, leaving DePriest with an empty hall. In his autobiography, years later, Lightfoot commented, “I never dreamed that I would see an event like that.”
The women were on strike from the Benjamin Sopkin and Sons factory, which specialized in making women’s housecoats, dresses, and aprons. Benjamin Sopkin employed mostly African American women at semi-and unskilled positions, in sweatshop-like conditions. After local Chicago Communists approached the African American dressmakers (as Sopkin workers were called) with plans to organize a union and declare a strike, almost 1500 women walked out on the first day, June 19, 1933. Remarkably, less than once month prior, almost 1800 African American women, with Communists’ aid, had struck at the Funsten Nut Company in St. Louis, and successfully won all their demands. The 1933 strike, however, presented challenges unique to Chicago, hurdles Communists were ultimately unable to overcome. Yet, like much of the radical labor movement in the early Great Depression, the Sopkin strike was a signal that Chicago, and indeed the country, was ready for organizing in the garment industry.
Chicago was no stranger to radical labor agitation. For Communist Party member Steve Nelson, Chicago was the center of American radicalism. “In my mind,” he wrote, “Chicago had always been an unofficial capital city for labor radicalism, the home of May Day and the movement for the eight hour day, the place where the Haymarket martyrs were hung and the Communist Party was born.” Fellow radical, Len De Caux described Chicago at “the center, the hard core of the United States.” Both Nelson and De Caux migrated to Chicago in the 1930s, sensing it was the hub of radical activity. For Harry Haywood, who had lived in Chicago since 1915, the experience was slightly different: Chicago had radicalized him. He witnessed the 1919 race riot in the city, and was convinced that the city was the ideal place for the education of a young Black radical. Haywood predicted that in the 1930s, Chicago “was to become a main testing ground for Black and white labor unity.” The 1933 Sopkin Dressmakers’ Strike would prove Haywood’s conjecture correct.
The rapid growth in the Black population, and the corresponding segregation, poverty, and discrimination they faced, directly affected radical efforts in Chicago. In 1910, African Americans were two percent of the population; by 1930, the percentage had increased to 6.9. Only four years later, in 1934, Blacks made up 7.3 percent of the Chicago population. Though less than ten percent of the population, Blacks made up forty percent of those on relief and half of African American families were on some sort of government aid. Nine out of ten Blacks in Chicago lived in Black-dominated neighborhoods, especially a growing urban area on the Southside known as the “Black Belt.” Observing huge rates of unemployment and inadequate relief efforts, the Unemployed Councils began a rigorous campaign to target African Americans in the Black Belt.
Prior to 1930, radicals in the “Black Belt” were mostly absent. Most African Americans, tenuously holding onto employment and economic growth of the 1920s, were not willing the risk of being labeled a “red.” However, the rampant unemployment wrought by the Great Depression drastically changed Black workers’ minds. Cayton and Drake estimated that nine thousand Blacks were displaced from clerical and semi-skilled work, seven thousand in unskilled work, and twelve thousand in service work, levels that were two to three times as much as whites. Thyra Edwards, an African American social worker, described the unemployed workers’ moods at a soup kitchen as “dull” and “without eagerness or haste.” Yet, they were “not so finally emasculated and reduced to the complete infantile dependence into which our economic system has forced [them].” For Edwards, these men had little left to lose and it was understandable that they turned to more radical options. As University of Chicago political scientist Harold Gosnell noted, “when a man is unemployed, he can risk listening to a Communist agitator.”
By 1928, the American Communist Party was optimistic: it boasted nine thousand members and its main organ, the Daily Worker, reached 22,500 readers. The Comintern had decreed that the Party was entering the Third Period, where capitalism worldwide had reached a perilous tipping point in history; the outcome was either the dictatorship of the bourgeois or the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Comintern sensed that the time was ripe for Communists to build the Party internationally, preach to the masses, and prepare for revolution, a stark change from Second Period ideology which deemed world revolution was unlikely and therefore the Soviet Union should focus on developing Communism internally. Taking heed from the Comintern, the CPUSA began to build independent radical unions and organizations to reach the masses of workers. For years building up to 1928, the American Communists, through their Trade Union Educational League (TUEL), advocated taking over existing unions, a policy they termed “boring from within.” Third Period doctrine promoted radical independence and pitted “class against class;” no more would Communists cooperate with what they deemed moderate, middle-class capitalist organizations. Therefore, in 1929, the CPUSA founded the independent radical union organization, the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL), and a new era of Communist labor and social organizing began. Though the Third Period officially began in 1928, its theories gained more credence with the 1929 stock market crash.
While its primary objective was to promote independent, radical union organizing in line with the Third Period philosophy, the TUUL also aimed to form an organization that could specifically address issues of unemployment. The TUUL was mildly successful in organizing unions independent of the American Federal of Labor and mainstream labor unions, but the TUUL’s Unemployed Councils (UCs), as they would become known, reached thousands of urban poor around the country as the councils sought to address immediate needs, often through militant direction, and provide goods and services to those hardest hit by the Depression The UCs deserve special attention, as their “bread and butter” strategy of organizing and militant direct action set the foundation for simultaneous and later radical union organizing. The work done by the Unemployed Councils and local Communists in cities like Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, and Detroit made radicalism come alive and seem relevant to 1930s workers, and to African American workers in particular. To attract a broader base of support, the UCs never officially affiliated with the CPUSA, though Communists often led local councils. Instead, the UC leaders drew on the support of the unemployed, underemployed, homeless, and starving urban residents to supply the membership for the movement. As the Depression wore on, the UC leaders drew on this discontent to organize the unemployed and stage demonstrations, regardless of people’s political or ideological affiliations. As Communist leader William Patterson remembered, “The Unemployed Councils were a creation of the Communists, though in the main their composition was made up of non-Communists.” The UCs provided a program, a long and short-term plan, and results that attracted thousands of workers, who were disillusioned with the American political elites and increasingly radicalized.
The UCs became wildly popular—a status less reflected through numbers than their significant social influence. The Councils answered a desperate demand during the early Depression that private charities and local governments were ill-equipped to meet. Private charities, churches, women’s clubs, and brotherhood organizations lacked the administrative capabilities and money to provide relief for those hardest-stricken, while local governments found that raising taxes among an unemployed population did little to boost revenue. As well, state governments and the federal government, under Republican President Herbert Hoover, regarded relief as traditionally a local problem. The UCs provided a program, a long-and short-term plan, and results that attracted thousands of workers, who were disillusioned with American political elites and increasingly radicalized. Moreover, the UCs’ activities attracted hundreds of thousands of African Americans. A proposed program pamphlet published by the UCs set forth the Councils’ goal in interracial organizing, writing that the organizations must be diligent in defending the interests of the African Americans, as they are “a most important phase of all our struggles.” Therefore, it is the “special duty of the militant white workers to take up the struggle against the arrogant master class attitude towards the Negro masses,” the pamphlet advocated. “In this manner, the unity of all workers will be cemented and our power increased.” And when disenfranchised urban populations grew discontented and more radical, the Communists, through their leadership in the UCs, were prepared to act.
For the Communists, organizing the unemployed meant mass demonstrations, marches, and protests to highlight the large numbers of workers without jobs. Political scientist Harold Lasswell and his assistant Dorothy Blumenstock estimated that from 1929 to 1934 the Communist Party led, organized, or participated in over two thousand mass demonstrations in Chicago. The Communists’ techniques varied in regards to the type of protest and their demands (whether specific or general revolutionary goals), as well the restrictive measures taken by law enforcement. For example, the founding of the Industrial Squad of the Chicago Police Department (more commonly known as the “Red Squad”) in 1929 severely inhibited public gatherings. The Communist Party’s mass demonstrations were initially outlawed, but police realized they could more easily control public gatherings by requiring the planners to obtain permits.
This, of course, assumed there was a planner and organization for a mass gathering. For anti-eviction protests, this was simply not the case. In the September 1931 issue of The Nation, Horace Cayton detailed an anti-eviction protest he witnessed. As he was dining at a small restaurant, Cayton observed a crowd of African Americas “three abreast, forming a long uninterrupted line.” He followed the procession, discovering that these were the “‘Black bugs’—the Communists—the ‘Black reds,'” marching to replace an evicted family’s furniture into their home. According to the Communists, landlords would often evict families without any legal procedure. Cayton described how the march came to “a dirty, ill-kept street of houses,” where people had already started to move the evicted family’s “few miserable belongings” back into the house. As an African American women sobbed on the street, “intermittently crying and thanking God, loudly and dramatically,” Cayton noted “it was pathetic to see this old Black woman thanking God for aid which came in the form of a group of so-called Communists.”
Cayton documented how crowd members stepped onto a soapbox one at a time, speaking out on unemployment, poor wages, starvation, and racism. One speaker in particular struck Cayton, another African American woman, not talking about “any economic principles,” “empty theories,” nor “abstract Utopia.” Instead, she spoke about immediate needs, such as bread, jobs, and homes. One by one, speakers, Communist and non-Communist alike, aired their grievances with the current political, social, and economic conditions until the Red Squad officers arrived in squad cars with sirens blaring, clubs flying, and guns firing. Cayton did not clarify as to which anti-eviction riot he witnessed, but that lack of specificity hints at the widespread nature of such marches and protests. They often unfolded in similar ways. In Black Metropolis, Cayton and Drake noted, “When eviction notices arrived, it was not unusual for a mother to shout to the children, ‘Run quick and find the Reds!'”
The August 3, 1931 riot stood out in Chicago residents’ minds more than any other riot. It started much like other radical demonstrations: an African American man addressed a small crowd in the South Side’s Washington Park and criticized joblessness, the lack of government relief, and high rents. That very afternoon, the speaker announced, Diana Gross, aged seventy-two, and her daughter Rose Warwick, faced eviction crews. The crowd took to the streets singing and marching to the house which was only a few blocks away, gaining hundreds of members as they went along. By the time they reached the house on Dearborn Street, the total mass of people numbered several thousand. The next day, the Chicago Tribune estimated the crowd reached five thousand people, two thousand of whom were Communists. With little urging needed, the marchers began to return the belongings of Gross and Warwick into the house. They shouted slogans such as “Put that furniture back!” and “We want something to eat!” The Red Squad wasted little time in appearing and beginning their controversial crowd dispersal tactics. According to police reports, the crowd was successfully pushed back for a few moments, when all of the sudden, the masses surged forward. Allegedly brandishing knives, pistols, sticks, and stones, the crowd grew increasingly violent until the first shot was fired (unsurprisingly, the protesters and the police officers never agree upon who fired the first shot). Police then opened fire on the mob, causing mass chaos as the thousands of protesters panicked and ran.
When the smoke and the streets cleared, three African American men lay dead and five more were wounded (three protesters, two police officers). Among the dead was Abe Grey, thirty-nine, an active Party organizer. Grey had been at the front of column that marched on Dearborn street; fellow protesters reported him saying, “If there is a shooting, I expect to be killed, because I shall be on the front rank.” Chicago’s Daily Tribune reported that “in his pockets were found a quantity of Communist literature and a card issued by the Scottsboro Defense league, which had been active in fomenting discontent among Negroes.” Twenty-five protesters had also been arrested. Among them was a well-known Black Communist in Lovett Fort-Whiteman, reported to be the first African American in the Communist Party, who had also studied in the Soviet Union.
That Grey had been an active member of the Communist Party and the Unemployed Councils and that Fort-Whiteman was educated in Communist doctrine mattered little to the mainstream press. Chicago’s South Side Blacks were certainly being manipulated by the alien “reds.” The Tribune‘s headlines screamed “City’s Colored People Incited by Communists,” and when Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak cut his vacation short and returned to the city, he reported, “it is evident that the Communists are striving to make mischief of the present business depression….My information is that all of them are well dressed, well fed fellows, who have a marked aversion for honest toil but subsist on the contributions of those whom they preach.”
In addition, Mayor Cermak asserted that the majority of the agitators were aliens and in the country illegally. According to Cermak, and also reported by the Tribune, Communist leaders and UC leaders were not only not working-class and not starving, they were not even American.
Whether a political move to deny radical agitators American national identity, Cermak’s remarks were unfounded, as organization in the days following the riots would suggest. South Side Party members, David Pointdexter, Claude Lightfoot, Squire Brown, and Marie Houston, all African Americans born in the country, jumped to organize a neighborhood meeting that drew seven to ten thousand spectators. Every night for the following week, Washington Park was crowded with thousands of South Side residents who listened to radical speakers, Communist and non-Communist, as they lambasted the capitalist state, racism, police violence, evictions, and unemployment. An open forum known as the “Bug House Club” operated as a year-round soapbox that traditionally drew one to two hundred spectators, however, after August 3, the park became a daily “rallying point of indignation” for many African Americans, both middle-and working-class. Though Communists spoke often, more moderate local Black community leaders also stepped to the soapbox to address the masses, stressing the importance of religion, community, and calmness. The Reverend J. C. Austin, pastor of Pilgrim Baptist church, the largest Black church in the city, had attempted to address the crowd before on “Christ and Communism.” “But you can’t talk religion to a man with an empty stomach,” he said. African American doctor Martin Bickman noted that the riot “flared up the whole community. I spent the next forty-eight hours in the streets down there, trying to quiet things down.”
The day after the riot, attempting to calm things down, Mayor Cermak (from his vacation spot in Michigan) ordered a halt to all evictions, at least until he could return to the city and appraise the conditions for himself. This concession, however brief, was touted by the Communists as a victory. At one of the mass meetings at Washington Park the week following the riot, a Communist speaker took to the soapbox. Communists had been fighting for a halt to evictions, “but not until this violent clash occurred have the city and country officials taken proper notice of the suffering caused among jobless families. However, the task was not yet complete. The Unemployed Councils planned a mass funeral for the two of the three killed in the eviction, so as to “give the outraged masses an opportunity to view the bodies.” For three days leading to the funeral, the bodies of Grey and John O’Neil lay at Odd Fellows’ Hall, an African American community center on the South Side. Behind the stage where the bodies lay, a spotlight focused on a giant portrait of Lenin. On either side of the stage were paintings of a Black and white worker shaking hands, with the slogan “Negro and white workers, united together!” Party members worked in twelve-hour shifts to guard the bodies as an estimated twenty-five thousand sympathizers and curious onlookers passed through the hall in the days leading to the funeral.
Meanwhile, local activists were busy preparing for the funeral march. The Communist Party distributed fifty-thousand leaflets, the Communist-initiated organizations, the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, the Unemployed Councils, and the (also Communist-initiated) International Labor Defense each distributed an additional twenty thousand leaflets advertising the funeral. On August 8, 1931, several thousand gathered in front of Odd Fellows’ Hall, joined by three hundred police officers. The coffins of Grey and O’Neal were removed from the hall and placed in hearses, and slowly the procession moved down State Street. Marchers carried signs saying “They died for us! We must keep fighting!” “Fight against lynching- equal rights for Negroes!” and “Negro misleaders incited these murders!” The procession marched south to a railway station, where the bodies were to be placed on a train to be sent south to Grey’s and O’Neal’s birthplaces.
For the Communists, the response to the riot and mass funeral had been a success. In less than a month following the riot, the Party received five hundred new applications. The South Side Unemployed Councils received 5,500 new applicants for membership. More importantly, the riot, the Communists’ involvement, and the Unemployed Councils’ sustained work radicalized the African American population. As Arvarh E. Strickland noted in his history of the Chicago Urban League, the events of 1931 “served as a catalyst, stirring the city from its lethargy.”
To fully capitalize on the excitement in the African American community, the Communists needed to organize Black workers into Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) unions. Early in 1933, stockyard workers in the meat-packing industry struck, but the TUUL was unable to make connections with workers. In spring 1933, as the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) made its way through Congress, holding the promises of workers’ right to organize, collective bargaining, minimum wages, and maximum working hours, workers in Chicago began to respond. Clothing workers in particular, having suffered a dismal 1932, began to energize. Wilfred Carsel, historian of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) observed that, “in the spring of 1933, Chicago dressmakers were stirring with signs of approaching revolt,” encouraged by the promise of the New Deal. “The dress campaign became full of life.” Though Carsel referred specifically to the ILWGU, his observation about workers’ energy and favorable outlook toward unions reflected the industry as a whole. The combination of the TUUL efforts to organize Black workers and the agitation in the garment industry culminated in organizing the Sopkin Apron Factories in June 1933.
In the early 1930s, the influence of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was at an all-time low. The stock market crash had lost the International members, contracts, money, and motivation for strikes. Membership, once in the hundreds of thousands, had dropped to forty thousand and the organization was over two million dollar in debt. The union’s president, Benjamin Schlesinger, died in June 1932, and the newly elected David Dubinsky was ready to bury the union. Though the International would eventually recover with support from New Deal legislation and rise to be one of the nation’s most powerful unions, in the beginning months of 1933, there was a large void in the union movement in the garment industry. Local organizers even admitted their inactivity: “At the beginning of 1933 a number of our locals practically became inactive.”
The Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union (NTWIU) was ready to capitalize on the lack of ILGWU’s presence in factories. Though their numbers were comparatively miniscule to the ILGWU, the NTWIU’s ties to the TUUL and the Communist Party soon attracted attention and success in their efforts. Furthermore, Communist presence in Chicago through the Unemployed Councils’ marches, demonstrations, and the anti-eviction rallies had helped radicalize Chicago’s working-class Black population. The post-1931 eviction riot, the riled-up Black community, the lack of garment workers’ union, and the CPUSA’s Third Period politics all aligned in summer 1933.
In June 1933, the TUUL was energized and optimistic about the successes of the St. Louis Funsten Nut Pickers’ Strike only one month before, and were eager to continue the momentum. “Do as the nut pickers did!” rang in the ears of Chicago organizers, and when the opportunity presented itself to organize garment workers in the Sopkin factories, they reacted quickly. They employed methods similar to St. Louis organizers, using the Unemployed Councils’ reputation among working-class Blacks, community organizing, Black women strike-leaders, workers’ committees, and mass picketing. Chicago, though, introduced new obstacles: local community leaders and politicians, notably Congressman Oscar DePriest, represented an established Black middle-class eager to intervene; Benjamin Sopkin was particularly militant and creative in fighting the NTWIU and radical organizing; and the ILWGU’s national resurgence demonstrated a challenge to the NTWIU. At the time, though, Sopkin appeared to be another “Funsten” and victory.
Benjamin Sopkin was a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant who came to the United States in the 1890s with his family. An immigrant who had lived the “American dream,” Sopkin was resolute in his labor negotiations in a 1916 strike, and though the outcome of the strike is not known, it is likely that this sort of union organizing worried Sopkin enough that he started seeking employees who would work for less and be less likely to organize. African American women fit his criteria. One year after the 1916 strike, the Chicago Defender (often simply known as the Defender) announced that “Mrs. Prince informs the Defender that she can put 200 girls to work” at Steinberg and Sopkin Bros., in positions formerly held by white women and girls. The Defender cautioned Black women seeking this work:
It would be very wise for those “who have a brother or father to take care of them” and those “who have to work” to stay away, those starting trouble at the least this doesn’t meet your satisfaction must again remember these [jobs] if properly filled with good working girls will never be turned to the whites again.
These certain requirements reflected the notion of respectability in the African American community. Women workers who have a male figure in their lives would be less likely to be lone providers for their family, and less desperate for work. The Defender reasons that women “who have to work” because they were the only wage-earner in the household would be more likely to “start trouble.” Couched in terms of respectability, the paper effectively denounced unionization in the factories. This sentiment would resurface again during February and March 1917 when Chicago’s ILWGU held an industry-wide strike. About five hundred African American women replaced white women as the former worked for less and knew little about union organizing. As shown in the Defender article, many African Americans in the community supported these strike breakers.
Outside of New York, Chicago employed the most African Americans in the clothing industry, the majority employed in women’s garments. African Americans were often employed as non-union workers in the clothing industry and anti-union shop owners often used Blacks as strikebreakers. Once these women entered the garment industry, they could develop the skills they needed to secure employment. Factory work, skilled or unskilled, union or not, was preferable to domestic work. As the Defender wrote in its call for Sopkin workers, “It is the earnest hope of the Defender that the girls and women will take advantage of this situation and [learn] something or a trade, so that they won’t have to work in a white man’s kitchen as a scullion.”
The Black women responding to the call for workers would typically enter the job place as unskilled, low-paid workers. They were frequently employed as cleaners, who removed loose threads and spots from finished garments; drapers, who made final adjustments to garments; pinkers, who operated a machine that cut seams after they were sewn together; basters, who made quick stitches on garments that would ultimately be removed; and examiners, who inspected the final garments to make sure they adhered to the measurements as well as the shop’s quality standards. Cutters and sewers were among the jobs that required more training and skill, and thus received the highest wages. For Blacks who entered clothing factories at the bottom level, advancement and promotion was rare. Once a worker became proficient in a job, he or she stayed there. In terms of skilled jobs, Black women employed as cutters received between five and six dollars a week while white cutters received eighteen dollars.
According to Claude Lightfoot, the six Sopkin factories were known as the “Sopkin’s Sweatshops” and were infamous on the South Side. Workers suffered under conditions similar to those described by Frances Perkins, such as filthy surroundings, dim lighting, meager pay, and long hours. Female workers frequently reported bathroom facilities were inadequate and white foremen would enter the women’s restrooms at will. Among the more startling evidence was the women’s pay. For fifty-two hours a week, Black workers on piecework received only three to four dollars. Often, strikers and strike supporters referred to this pay as “starvation wages,” charging that the “hours were too long for any human being to work in one day.”
When the Section Committee of local Communist leaders decided something must be done, the New York-based union the Fur and Leather Workers’ Union (one of the more successful TUUL unions) sent “a team of Jewish organizers” in the beginning of the summer in 1933 to aid in organizing the Sopkin workers. This team, headed by Abe Feinglass and E. B. Girsch, along with locals like Lightfoot and Jewish Chicago Communist Jack Kling, would become the instigators of the strike. They established contacts with workers in the factories, help meetings, and hurriedly set up worker committees, as the busy season for the garment industry was rapidly approaching. Two hundred Sopkin workers attended a mass meeting in June and voted unanimously to call a strike. They formulated their demands and 1,600 strikers, mostly African American women, elected African American worker Ida Carter to led them in a workers’ committee. Together, the Sopkin workers decided to demand eleven dollars per week, a nine-hour day, equal pay for whites and Blacks, and proper restroom facilities, and no charge for employees cashing their paychecks with management. Cashing their paychecks with Sopkin was an additional burden for the women as he charged a fee on the already meager wages. It also represented his careless attitude toward his workers and his emphasis on penny-pinching. By demanding no fee for cashing their paychecks, the workers made a financial as well as a dignity argument.
On June 19, 1933, a Monday morning, the women arrived at 7:30 as usual at the Sopkin factories. Two hours later, around 1,500 Sopkin employees, mostly Black women—though white women were present too—walked out from factories around the South Side. Around five hundred workers walked out of the main plant where the Sopkin offices were located. In his autobiography years later, TUUL organizer Jack Kling described the logistics of calling a strike.
[We] would open the door of the shop and all walk in together, shouting “Strike!” One committee member was assigned to pull the electric switch to stop the machines; several were assigned to windows to prevent the bosses from calling for help; we signed up the workers and in this way we struck the shop. Often struggles took place right in the shop, between the union committees and the bosses and foremen, and people were hurt. But in the end, negotiations were opened between the union and the bosses, agreements were reached, and the workers joined the union.
They then took to the streets in front of the factories, peacefully marching and protesting.
The peace did not last long. At 9:45am on the first day of the strike, Benjamin Sopkin called the police, who responded violently. Forty-year old Mary Sallee, who was not a Sopkin employee but sympathized with the strikers, went down to the main factory at 39th Street and Michigan to show her support, as she had “been a slave all my life”. She later wrote the Working Woman and described how “the hired slugs come along and dragged me in the patrol wagon and kicked me and punched me with their clubs and called me all kinds of dirty names… They beat many other women. One had to have six stitches taken in her head.”
Instances of violence in the picket lines occurred daily, but they were not perpetrated only by the police. On the third day of the strike, according to police reports, the picketers attacked strikebreakers at the Michigan Ave. factory as they reported for work. Police then intervened, but the strikers fought back. The Tribune reported four policemen were knocked down and “a fifth was bitten on the arm.” As almost one thousand people looked on, the police arrested sixty strikers, but only ended up charging fifteen. Mary Sallee was one of those charged and fined twenty-five dollars after she reportedly “broke her umbrella on the heads of several policemen,” a detail she did not include in her letter to the editor.
The spectacle of violence soon proved to be a media fascination as well as a draw for the sympathetic and curious. As the strike entered its second week, Robert Morss Lovett, professor of English and literature at the University of Chicago, visited the picket lines. He had heard reports that “police were brutal to the strikers who were exercising their constitutional right by picketing the plant.” When he arrived, about twenty-five picketers marched on the sidewalk and a “fair-sized crowd of sympathizers” watched. When the police began to push the crowd and order the strikers and spectators to move, Lovett told the officers that the strikers had the Mayor’s permission to picket, and that the picketers should demand their rights. According to the police sergeant present, Lovett actually shouted “Don’t pay attention to the police. You have a right to picket!” Regardless, Lovett and his companion, Thomas McKenna, secretary of the local American Civil Liberties Union, were arrested, put into a patrol car, spent less than two hours in jail, and were released under a twenty-five dollar bond. The incident brought national attention to the strike as the New York Times covered Lovett’s arrest. Lovett and McKenna were later acquitted and the presiding judge admonished the prosecuting attorney for bringing such a frivolous case. Lovett, an FDR supporter and frequent occupant of Jane Addams’ Hull-House, represented a particular white liberal population who, while not Communist, supported the UCs and TUUL’s outreach in the Black working-class community. His support helped legitimize the women’s struggle, spread awareness, and led to sustained labor organizing in Chicago’s garment industry.
The increased attention and the spotlight on Lovett’s involvement did not lessen the violence. Two days after Lovett’s arrest, the strikers again intercepted workers on route to the Sopkin factory. Two women, Anna Bundy and Dorothy Moore, led a mob of about one hundred people to storm a streetcar and pull off three would-be strikebreakers. When the police intervened, the mob grew unruly and forcibly stopped the trolley car. The protesters then began to throw bricks and stones through the windows and would not disperse until the police drew their guns.
Sopkin could not understand why the women struck. “We have always been good to our employees,” he told the Defender. “B. Sopkin and Sons were the first in line to hire any other but white girls. We started the new policy back in 1914.” Presumably, Sopkin was referencing when he hired Black workers as strikebreakers and therefore gained valuable ties with the Black community. The 1917 call for workers at Sopkin’s factories showed how the Defender supported his hiring policies, but by 1933, the Defender‘s support had run out, and the instances of violence towards the women strikers turned the Defender‘s editorial staff against Sopkin. An editorial published on July 1 in the city edition commented that “a new day has arrived” and that “Mr. Sopkin represents an age and an idea that is rapidly fading, a new conception of industrial ideals is taking form.” The editorial urged business owners to “conform to the ethical ideas of the Roosevelt new deal.” Institutions that still pay “starvation wages” are “enemies to society and to law.” Therefore, the question of just wages was pertinent not only to the workers, but to society at large.
What concerned the editorial staff most was the police violence, often perpetrated on behalf of the owners. “It is not the duty of the police to settle strikes. They are to preserve law and order. Many of them seem to think they are to take sides with sweatshop workers.” Furthermore, the police were trying to distract from the issues at hand by red-baiting. The editorial concluded, “The police are attempting to smoke screen the issue by calling these women Communists. Suppose they are! Take some of these same policemen off of the pay roll for six months and they will be Communists too.”
The violence of the strike and the Defender‘s approval of the striking women rapidly drew local South Side community leaders into the labor dispute to preserve the peace. A. L. Foster of the Chicago Urban League arranged a meeting on June 24 at the Urban League headquarters, a location approved by both the Sopkin management and the striking workers. There, the League’s two vice presidents, Dr. M. O. Bousfield and Miss Amelia Sears met with Mrs. Dieckman of the Loop’s YWCA, Reverend A. W. Ward, a representative from the Defender, Sopkin, and workers’ representatives. Joining the moderate leaders of the African American community was Black Communist James Ford, the CPUSA’s 1932 vice-presidential candidate. There, the committee heard from both sides and examined 150 pay envelopes, which held weekly wages that ranged from $1.90 to $7.70. When confronted with this evidence Sopkin simply said his business was losing money and he could not afford better wages. With Sopkin’s refusal to negotiate, “the meeting at the Urban League ended where it started,” reported the Defender.
A few days later, the arbitration committee decided to expand its group by inviting more influential political figures. At the main Sopkin factory, Congressman Oscar DePriest, Aldermen William L. Dawson and R. R. Jackson, social worker Jennie Lawrence, and Reverend J. C. Austin gathered to discuss an agreement. At first, James Ford was not allowed to enter negotiations. However, the strikers immediately proposed and passed a resolution that allowed him to be present and address the committee. The presence of Ford drew the ire of Sopkin and the moderate Black community leaders. Sopkin objected to Ford, the Communist Party, and the Needle Trades Workers’ Industrial Union on ideological grounds. He would be happy to deal with the union if it were part of the AFL, though.
The committee of Black community leaders and politicians proposed an agreement that would increase wages by fifteen percent, no fee for cashed checks, and form a workers’ committee that would investigate working conditions. The agreement was “immediately turned down flat” by the striking women. The strikers, first by insisting upon Ford’s presence and then for refusing what they deemed a poor agreement, held strongly to their ties with the Communists and rejected the Black community leaders.
This alliance no doubt pleased the Communists. For years, Chicago Communists had been fighting moderate African American leaders and Congressman DePriest in particular. Twice the previous winter, Chicago Communists had stormed DePriest’s office and staged demonstrations protesting the conditions in his neighborhood. In 1931, Communists disrupted a NAACP meeting about the Scottsboro Boys, and even “threatened” DePriest. Characterized by national Communist press as a “Negro misleader” and “tied up with… the white capitalist class,” the congressman was a frequent target for Chicago Communists.
DePriest’s involvement in the Sopkin Strike annoyed the Communists. DePriest had repeatedly denounced the Party, and within the first week of the strike, he reaffirmed “I am not a Communist—never have been, and do not believe in it.” DePriest’s ideological beliefs stood in direct conflict with the Communists’ main goal to set up strong Party support and a TUUL union within the Sopkin factories. DePriest was a hurdle to overcome, and immediately the Communist press began attacking him. According to the Daily Worker, DePriest had organized the meeting with the purpose of “splitting the workers’ ranks and forcing upon them an agreement suited to the interests of Sopkin,” insinuating DePriest colluded with Sopkin in trying to sidestep the NTWIU and the Communist Party. But the striking women held strong, the Daily Worker reported. “Repeated requests by DePriest that he be accepted as mediator were met with complete silence.” For the Communists, this showed that the women were more likely to side with issues of class than race. In an editorial, the Daily Worker again applauded the women for their loyalty. “The policies of DePriest and the Urban League were repudiated by the strikers. The Negro workers in their first test in the class struggle stood by their class and against the ‘friends’ who openly showed their class interests by supporting Sopkin.” To the Communists, DePriest exemplified an enemy and traitor to the Black working-class as he easily turned his back on them to represent the interests of Sopkin.
As the Communist press attacked DePriest, they reserved a special expose for Benjamin Sopkin. A two column article in the Daily Worker titled “Sopkin paid $5 a Hole for Golf, $3 a Week to Workers,” provided enough ad hominem attacks to make any reader despise Sopkin. The article detailed Sopkin’s extravagant lifestyle and how “Sopkin doesn’t mind separating himself from money—but not to workers.” Instead, Sopkin would rather drive around in a custom Lincoln, rent hotel suites that cost over one hundred dollars a week, and eat Sunday dinners that consisted of pate de foie gras, roast chicken with truffle dressing, and potato soufflé. For the Communists, these detailed examples of Sopkin’s personal life showed how Sopkin’s reticence to negotiate with the workers was due not to financial woes but instead to ideology and to a disconnect with the working class.
Intent on undermining the strike and Black-white cooperation, Benjamin Sopkin employed creative techniques, reaching out to local Black community and religious leaders. According to Lightfoot, Sopkin called on them for aid and they readily responded. Congressman DePriest participated in the strike negotiations and African American ministers, with the urging of Sopkin, injected themselves into the strike as well. While workers gathered outside the factory, Sopkin asked one of the men present to led the group into prayer. From there, the crowd began singing church songs, prompting one critic to accuse Sopkin of “starting a church.” In a manner reminiscent of Henry Ford in Detroit, Sopkin worked closely with middle-class Black politicians and religious leaders in order to show his willingness to cooperate with African Americans.
Police harassment did not end on the picket lines. Jack Kling remembered a specific incident when out-of-town members of the Young Communist League (YCL) came to Chicago for a house meeting. Among them were white Communist Gil Green and Black Communist Lloyd Brown. When the police raided the home,
they separated the whites from the Blacks. Gil Green, who had dark, kinky hair, was put in the room with the Blacks. Lloyd Brown, who is very light, was placed with the whites. The police, speaking to the whites, attacked the Blacks. Speaking to the Blacks, they argued that the whites were trying to misuse them…they were surely experts at harassment.
While Sopkin was surely aware and overseer of police action in front of his own factories, it is not certain if he prompted the house raid. However, the police’s action of separating the Blacks from the whites mirrored the actions taken by Sopkin. When Sopkin recruited the aid of Black community leaders, he was attempting to draw the Black women workers away from white Communists, using their Christian religion or support of Black politicians to his advantage. Just as the police harassment and home raids, the sermons represented Sopkin’s effort to intimidate, and influence the Black women.
The strike lasted exactly two weeks. On Monday, July 3, Sopkin management, presumably financially weakened by the strike, agreed to all terms presented by the workers’ representatives. Among the arrangements were a forty-seven-hour work week, 17.5% wage increase, equal pay for both whites and Blacks, proper restrooms, a social worker and nurse on staff, water during hot weather, free check-cashing, and no firing of strike participants. As far as unions went, the workers were now allowed to organize under “any union of their own choosing and will not discriminate against said worker.” The terms the workers’ representatives presented did not guarantee the NTWIU sole bargaining rights for the dressmakers. Instead, under the Employee Representation Plan in response to the NIRA, specifically Section 7(a), it allowed the women to choose, or decline, their own union representation. It seemed that in this one way, Sopkin had triumphed over the Communists. Without sole control of bargaining rights, the radical presence in the Sopkin factories would be limited. However, the right to organize opened the door for other more moderate unions, such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, to enter the Sopkin shops.
Depending on who you asked, the strike was either a roaring success or a dismal failure. Local working-class advocates were inclined to credit the strike as one of the most significant victories for labor in the Great Depression. Writing a few years later, Thyra Edwards raved that “The  strike was one of the best organized and disciplined in Chicago labor history.” Harold Gosnell wrote that the strike was “the outstanding event of [Communists’] labor activities during the first four years of the economic depression.” Chicago Communists were fairly content with the strike as well. Claude Lightfoot claimed the events had “great class significance” in the area and emphasized how the African American women worked closely with the white Communists. He recalled how the women would often put the Communists in the middle of a marching group to protect them, and chant “Black and white—unite and fight!”
National Communist publications were, however, much more critical of the strike. The Communist accused DePriest of swooping in on negotiations at the last minute. According to the Communists, DePriest insisted Sopkin not recognize the NTWIU and thereby killed the radical organizing during the strike. The strikers could have held out longer, but the Communist argued it “would have meant the smashing of the strike and defeat, because as yet the strike was not organizationally consolidated. The union was not well established, the Party did not play a sufficient role in the strike.” The lack of Party organizing among the strikers resulted in a weak Party presence in the Sopkin shops. To prolong the strike would threaten the work the Communists had already done, and so the strike ended.
The Communists recognized that there had not been enough Party presence during the strike. “The outstanding weakness in the Sopkin Dress strike is that the Party and Young Communist League were not built sufficiently…This, in spite of the fact that large numbers of Negro women are ready for the Party and thirty filled out application cards.” Similar to the situation in St. Louis after the nut pickers strike, more work needed to be done in organizing the workers. Two months after the strike, Lightfoot wrote to the Central Committee that “we are paying dearly for mistakes that were committed during the strike, namely, failures to bring forward the face of the Party in a more resolute matter.” He reported that the women in the factories were not responding to organizing drives and that the established shop units were not carrying out their union responsibilities. Speed-ups, wage reductions, and lay-offs still plagued the Sopkin factories, and two factories recently closed.
The circumstances of the Chicago strike afforded the Communists with a convenient scapegoat and explanation for some of their failures. DePriest, “whose role is that of an arch enemy of the Negro people and lackey of the white ruling class…is behind the terror that rages against the Negro masses on the south side of Chicago and now he openly robbed the Negro women of their victories in the Sopkin Dress. For the CPUSA, DePriest’s “treacherous role” served as an important factor in failing to secure the Sopkin shops for the NTWIU, only furthering the divide between Chicago Communists and DePriest.
Despite their criticism and scathing opinion of DePriest, the CPUSA did not view the Sopkin strike as a complete failure. When viewed alongside the Funsten Strike, it appeared a new trend of labor organizing was emerging. Gebert, organizer of District 8, which included St. Louis and Chicago contended that “the strikes of the Negro women in St. Louis and Chicago against sweat-shop conditions are assuming a historical role in the new wave of strike struggles.” The fact that mostly African American women struck showed not only the women’s militancy, determination, and ability, but also that “these strikes are the first strikes in the recent period in the Chicago district making the Negro women the vanguard of the strike struggles.”
Earl Browder, General Secretary of the CPUSA, praised the efforts in St. Louis and Chicago as “good exceptions” to the Party’s “serious lack of engaging the Negro workers.” The Daily Worker specifically applauded the militancy of the Sopkin workers: “The workers have responded with the greatest display of militancy and courageous devotion…” That the Sopkin workers were willing to meet violence with resistance showed the Communists that the Black women workers, often theorized as “triple oppressed” by race, class, and gender, were indeed capable and willing to employ radical techniques in pursuit of workers’ rights.
This narrative changed slightly when, in the fall 1933, the ILGWU, rejuvenated by the NRA and inspired by recent strikes, led an industry-wide, national strike that would transform the garment industry in Chicago. Operating only one month after the Sopkin strike, the Chicago ILWGU organized the Lipson Brothers Dress Factory and struck to protest the company’s failure to cooperate with the NIRA standards. The Lipson strike was remarkably similar to the Sopkin strike: a University of Chicago professor was arrested, protesters were beaten, and the union eventually won its demands. Interestingly, though, the ILGWU did not mention the Sopkin strike or the influence of the NTWIU in Chicago. Instead, in leading the nation-wide strike in the fall, the ILWGU placed its emphasis on NIRA code violations and downplayed any radical involvement. In August, sixty thousand dressmakers in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut walked out of both union and non-union shops and in Chicago, 7,500 struck. With such massive numbers of striking employees, it was not long before garment businesses settled and agreed to the ILGWU terms. In Chicago, the eight thousand new ILGWU members of Local 100 agreed to thirty-five hours a week (down from forty-four), 15 to 25 percent wage increase, and recognition of the ILWGU. Many historians agree that with the NIRA, the ILWGU was “able to ride again.”
The NTWIU was involved in the national strike, claiming at least fifteen thousand workers, though the numbers are likely exaggerated. Though the TUUL had failed to set up the NWTIU in the Sopkin shops, Communists still claimed a victory in winning the loyalty of the Sopkin workers. This changed in 1934 when Frank Crosswaith, a Black socialist from New York, and Thyra Edwards approached Sopkin workers to join the ILWGU. The presence of ILWGU organizers aggravated not only Sopkin, who wished to lay all union talk to rest, but also the Communists, who wished for sole control over the Sopkin factories. As Crosswaith and Edwards began to organize workers, both Sopkin and the Communists circulated pamphlets deriding the ILGWU. Sopkin encouraged workers to “Stay loyal to Sopkin” while the Communists warned workers about the assimilationist tactics of the ILGWU. Though the NTWIU participated in the nation-wide 1933 ILWGU strike, the NTWIU was generally hostile to the ILWGU and their “reformist officials.” Ben Gold, NTWIU secretary, worried that “the International will not only completely ruin the conditions of workers, but will enable the jobbers once more to convert the dress industry into an open shop inferno.” With as much vitriol they usually reserved for someone like Sopkin, the Communists fought, albeit it futility, against the growing influence of the ILWGU in Chicago.
Benjamin Sopkin, not wanting a repeat of the 1933 strike, began a loyalty campaign. This included a “loyalty week” where workers were encouraged to wear white cardboard armbands inscribed with “I am a loyal employee of Mr. Ben Sopkin,” as they paraded in front of the factories with placards reading “We Are Satisfied With Our Jobs…Our Wages…Our Hours…Our Working Conditions…Our Employer…AGITATORS, KEEP AWAY!” Church doors, store windows, porches, fences, and trees all displayed signs urging South Side workers to “be loyal to your job.” In neighborhood churches, preachers would give “loyalty sermons” to their congregations, showing Sopkin’s influence reached beyond the factory walls. Edwards reported that the content of the sermons included “Loyalty to Mr. Sopkins, who for 25 years has been like a father to the Negro women on the South Side, letting them work in his factories on his machine,” to which Edwards sardonically replied, “Well, so did ‘ole massa’ in slavery. What of it?” Sopkin’s actions yielded his desired results: when the workers voted on union representation in 1935, they voted 799 to 29 against the ILWGU.
By 1935, the TUUL had disbanded and members of the NTWIU drifted toward the ILWGU. Because of the ILGWU’s and Communists’ factional disputes of the late 1920s, union president David Dubinsky made it known that while all garment workers were welcome, they could not enter as a politically affiliated group. As the CPUSA ended the “class vs. class” era and entered the Popular Front era, Communists were content to collaborate to the ILWGU.
The ILWGU was not finished with the Sopkin factories yet, but this time it was a different Sopkin. In 1937, Benjamin’s son, Louis Sopkin took over the dressmaking factories, now known as B. Sopkin and Sons. With leadership from Mrs. Ray Boitteaux, a labor-school educated organizer from New York, Sopkin workers once against struck in April 1937. One ILGWU representative reported that when the NIRA was nullified in 1935, Sopkin went back to his pre-1933 strike ways, where workers, mostly Black women, worked up to seventy-eight hours a week for less than five dollars. The strikers, numbered only 190, demanded union recognition as well as thirteen dollars for a week’s work. Louis Sopkin proved to be very similar to his father and even drew on Benjamin’s purported legacy of helping Black working women. “Ben Sopkin started in this business 20 years ago and taught the colored girls how to sew unwashed garments. He gave them an education in learning how to earn their living.” He claimed more than 2,000 women had benefitted from his father’s benevolent actions. Yet tales of Louis’s father’s legacy fell deaf on the striking women’s ears, and for four months the women endured the picket lines and police brutality. Similar to the 1933, the workers also fought back, scratching policemen’s faces, pulling hair, and in once instance, throwing rotten eggs. On July 10, Louis Sopkin agreed to the women’s demands, guaranteeing fair wages and ILWGU representation, and a final Sopkin workers’ victory was won.
As a city with a radical past and thriving Black community, Chicago fostered a radical tradition unlike others in the Midwest, and the Unemployed Councils and the Trade Union Unity League had unusual success stories. As the Third Period waned and the Communist Party entered the Popular Front Era, the successes of the Needle Workers’ Industrial Union gave way to the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Though African American women fought hard to keep the Communists involved in the Sopkin strike of 1933, ultimately, they sought any union protection, not necessarily radical union protection. When the workers sided with the ILWGU in 1935, Communists wrote off the Sopkin Dressmakers’ Strike as a failure.
Yet the Sopkin strike was a harbinger; it anticipated the national, industry-wide strikes in the fall of 1933, influenced the 1935 re-organization efforts of the Sopkin factories, and proved that Black women could gain union representation in Chicago dress factories. The 1933 strike opened doors for more moderate, labor unions such as the ILGWU to enter the shops. By enunciating specific demands, denying DePriest authority, and embracing radical ideas the women of the 1933 strike left their mark not only on Chicago’s garment industry, but radical labor history as well.