Communists helped bring industrial unionism to New York City’s laundries
A front-page photograph in the Oct. 26, 1936, edition of the Daily News captured the defiant, young face of Jessie Taft as she stood chained to the balcony of a New York City hotel. With her fists raised high, still encased in chains, Taft demanded that the hotel stop sending its linen to the Sutton Superior Laundry where workers were on strike against abusive conditions and substandard wages.
Taft’s highly visible act of civil disobedience that day was part of a much longer struggle to forge new ground by organizing a predominantly Black and female workforce. While Taft and other Communist organizers, including the indomitable Beatrice Shapiro, would succeed in bringing industrial unionism to the city’s 30,000 laundry workers, their egalitarian vision for the industry would flounder when the women and their comrades were systematically purged from the industry in the early 1940s.
Laundry goes from household work to industry
By 1910, the emergence of power laundries that employed dozens and even hundreds of workers in a single establishment had transformed laundry work from a domestic task into an industrial occupation. By 1930, more than a quarter of a million workers nationwide churned out sheets for hotels, linens for restaurants, and clothes for middle and some working-class families. Because of the industry’s consistently bad working conditions and low wages, laundries relied on workers who were excluded from virtually every other employment sector.
In New York, as in most of the rest of the nation, the laundry employers’ rabid anti-union tactics, divisions within the workforce, and the workers’ extreme poverty defeated their attempts to organize in the first three decades of the 20th century. In a dramatic reversal of fortunes, by 1939 almost all of New York City’s laundry workers belonged to the Congress of Industrial Organizations-affiliated Laundry Workers Joint Board.
While a multiplicity of factors contributed to the workers’ success, including the emergence of the CIO, federal and state labor legislation, and the support provided by progressive organizations such as the Women’s Trade Union League and the Negro Labor Committee, central to the workers’ success were the activities of a small but committed group of Communist workers and organizers who made unprecedented attempts to organize the industry along interracial and industrial lines.
Responding to the devastation of the Depression, the growing militancy of the working class, and the inauguration of the Comintern’s “Third Period” policies in the early 1930s, Communist organizers across the United States established industrial unions in a number of industries, including the textile and food service industries.
Party members also reached out to African Americans who had traditionally been marginalized by or excluded outright from unions affiliated with the conservative American Federation of Labor. According to scholar Mark Naison, the Harlem party’s support for the Scottsboro Boys, nine victims of a racist frame-up in Alabama, and its willingness to help Black families fight eviction, police brutality, and discriminatory employment and relief practices constituted a “landmark in American race relations.”
One of the Communists’ important though largely overlooked contributions to Harlem’s Depression-era labor struggles involved the creation of the Trade Union Unity League-affiliated Laundry Workers Industrial Union.
At the center of this campaign was the spirited Young Communist Leaguer Jessie Taft. Raised in a militant left Jewish household, in 1931, Taft began working and organizing among Black and white laundry workers in Harlem and the Bronx. At the end of 1931, Taft and her comrades established the Laundry Workers Industrial Union, the first industrial union of laundry workers in New York City (and one of the first in the country). Located at 260 East 138th Street and Third Avenue, the new union was headed by Communist laundry worker Leon Blum.
Communists fight for unity
Recognizing that the AFL’s craft unionism had undermined the laundry workers’ previous organizational attempts, the Communist-led union united the highly paid “outside” laundry drivers, the majority of whom were white men, with the “inside” workers, the majority of whom were women and people of color. Building on the shop floor rebellion already present among the workers, the new union articulated workplace demands that addressed issues of racial discrimination and sexual harassment as well as bread-and-butter issues.
Emboldened by protections for labor organizing in President Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act, Taft and her comrades began calling strikes at some of the largest laundries in upper Manhattan and the Bronx, including the Active, Pretty and Superfine Laundries.
In June of 1933, in opposition to a proposed wage cut, the Communist-led union led a walkout of 1,200 Black and white laundry workers in Harlem and the Bronx. With the support of women’s groups and the Unemployed Councils, by the end of July the union had secured higher wages for the strikers, providing the laundry workers with one of their first collective victories in Manhattan.
As part of the Popular Front, in the spring of 1934, the Communist-led Laundry Workers Industrial Union merged with the AFL-affiliated Laundry Workers’ International Union. Jessie Taft was elected financial secretary of the reorganized union, which included both drivers and inside workers.
In 1936, a new campaign to organize the workers got underway, this time in Brooklyn. While Communists had taken the lead in upper Manhattan, Trinidadian-born Charlotte Adelmond was at the center of the organizational activities in Brooklyn. A Black nationalist and Garveyite, Adelmond was described by her peers as the only person who could lay an employer flat on his back without ever raising a finger.
Inspired by the grassroots activism and industrial organizing of workers like Adelmond and Taft, in 1936, laundry workers severed ties with the AFL and founded Local 204, a direct affiliate of the newly formed CIO.
‘Hey, CIO girl!’ >
Joined by her friend and comrade Beatrice Shapiro (today Beatrice Lumpkin), Jessie Taft (today Jessie Smith) was among 15 Communists hired by the CIO in 1936 to organize the city’s laundry workers. Shapiro, who was only 18 at the time, remembers that as word spread that the organizers were on their way to a plant, workers would run out and shout at her: “Hey, CIO girl! We want a union too!”
Shapiro also recalls that the African American laundry workers were “very militant and among the first to sign union cards.” Within two months, more than 10,000 laundry workers had joined CIO Local 204.
Local 204 immediately set out to secure a contract for the newly organized workers. The employers however refused to negotiate with a union comprised of Communists, insisting that the workers affiliate with a “responsible” union such as the ACWA, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. The ACWA readily agreed to take on the new jurisdiction, and even feminist reformer Rose Schneiderman of the Women’s Trade Union League lauded affiliation as the means to secure a stable union free of Communist control.
On Aug. 10, the ACWA’s general executive board granted the laundry workers a charter for United Laundry Workers Local 300, headquartered initially at the Negro Labor Committee’s Harlem Labor Center. Like its parent association, the new union would promote industry stability through arbitration and collective bargaining.
While the official trade union record celebrates affiliation with the ACWA as the turning point in the laundry workers’ struggle, Jessie Taft and Beatrice Shapiro have an entirely different interpretation. Both Taft and Shapiro believe that affiliation was orchestrated by the employers’ associations who believed that they could secure business-friendly contracts from a union like the ACWA. Shapiro described affiliation as an “unfriendly acquisition” while Taft describes it as a “coup d’etat” forced on a group of workers with little understanding of union politics.
In the following months, under the guidance of the ACWA, Local 300 signed a series of industry-wide collective agreements in different branches of the industry. The workers won reduced hours, higher wages, paid vacation, sick leave and closed shops.
In 1938, Local 300 was divided into nine locals united under the Laundry Workers Joint Board (LWJB). By 1939, almost all of the city’s laundry workers belonged to the LWJB.
Despite their important grassroots work, in 1939, Taft, Shapiro and the rest of their comrades were laid off from the union.
The ACWA simultaneously put together a slate of handpicked workers for the upcoming LWJB general elections, workers they manipulated through financial rewards. In addition to being taken out of their “hard, hot laundry jobs,” the workers’ salaries were increased from $15 to $50 a week and they were given the use of a car. With their pay tripled, Shapiro explains that “the new staffers’ loyalty to the machine was assured.”
The ACWA further extended its control over the new and potentially radical union by appointing its own leaders as managers, using the union’s inexperience and (ostensible) potential for corruption as justification for this tight grip.
No going quietly
Women like Beatrice Shapiro, however, refused to go quietly. Blacklisted from the industry in Manhattan, Shapiro used her mother’s name Chernin to get a job in a Brooklyn laundry. She quickly joined Brooklyn’s Local 328, the only LWJB local still under Communist control. Local 328 was one of the most active and democratic locals in the board, regularly signing up new laundries, securing back pay for its workers, and engaging in social activities ranging from spaghetti parties to buying out performances of “Pins and Needles.”
Despite or perhaps because of Local 328’s success, ACWA leaders quickly set out to purge the local of its Communist presence. During the local’s 1939 executive board elections, someone from the ACWA tampered with the ballots causing Shapiro’s slate to lose. The fraud was so crude that Shapiro and her comrades had no difficulty getting the election thrown out. In July of 1939, new elections were held and Beatrice Shapiro and her slate were easily re-elected. The victory, however, was short-lived.
In March of 1941, the LWJB suspended Communist business agents Mike Coleman and George McGriff and filed charges against the officers of Local 328 with the ACWA’s general executive board. The local was put under joint board receivership. Although Shapiro and her group knew that the trial was just a formality, they refused to go down without a fight, choosing Shapiro to represent them before the board.
In what Shapiro describes as a “chilling preview of the McCarthy period,” the ACWA brought in witnesses to testify against the group and expelled Shapiro and all of her comrades.
Costs of red-baiting
The expulsion of the Communists had a profound impact on the LWJB. As in many other unions, the ouster of the leftists contributed to a decline in shop-floor militancy and democratic union culture.
The purging of the Communists was also followed by constricting opportunities for women and people of color. While Sidney Hillman, president of the ACWA, had made a calculated political decision to adopt the Cold War politics of red-baiting, the suppression of leaders who reflected the demographics of the workforce was a more insidious and institutional process.
Unlike the Communist-led Laundry Workers Industrial Union, the LWJB would not offer space for Black women activists; nor would it make contesting racial or sexual discrimination a priority. While the membership of the LWJB was 70 percent to 80 percent Black and Puerto Rican, it was not until the 1980s that the union had a Black manager.
By the 1970s, the Laundry Workers Joint Board had become a shell of its former self, boasting less than 8,000 members. The union medical center, which had served thousands of laundry workers and their families in the 1950s and 1960s, was all but abandoned. While the traditional explanation for the union’s decline points to competition from home washing machines and laundromats, in fact in the 1960s the laundry industry continued to grow. By 1960, there were over half a million workers employed in laundry and dry cleaning plants in the United States.
The decline of the LWJB has its roots in the events of the late 1930s. Shapiro insists that the two main tools that have been used to weaken labor are racism and anti-communism, both of which were in evidence from the outset in the LWJB. Moreover, like many other unions in postwar America, the LWJB would develop bureaucratic and routinized relationships with its workers, eschewing the community-based trade unionism of the Communist-led union.
Laundry workers today
Today, as in the 1930s, laundry workers across the nation are in dire need of organization. Laundry work continues to be racialized labor, performed largely by immigrant workers of color, some of whom are especially vulnerable because they are undocumented.
Workers are subjected to the same abuses that plagued the industry in the 1930s: low wages, long hours, sexual harassment in the workplace and poor environmental conditions that involve exposure to harsh chemicals and dirty or bloody articles with little or no protection. In 2004, wages in New York City laundries were so low that then state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer began investigating laundries, forcing employers across the city to pay their employees back wages.
Despite the current conditions in the industry, recent events suggest that there are reasons to be hopeful. In 2006, some of the most important and interesting organizing took place among low-paid service workers, including laundry workers. As in the 1930s, laundry workers are again mobilizing, forming alliances with unions like Unite Here, which represents 45,000 laundry workers, and immigrant advocacy groups like Casa Mexico. In a post-industrial, globalized economy, there is every indication that service workers will be at the vanguard of the 21st-century labor movement.
What lessons then can the movement learn from the pioneering service sector organizing of women such as Beatrice Shapiro Lumpkin and Jessie Taft Smith?
First, it is clear that successful unions will be those that build alliances not only with trade unionists but also with community organizations and broad social movements such as the immigrant rights’ movement that surged to visibility last year.
Secondly, as the Communist organizing of the 1930s illustrated, inside laundry workers and drivers must organize together to be effective. Today, however, drivers largely belong to the Teamsters while inside workers belong to Unite Here. Only through concerted action will these workers be able to challenge the power of the most abusive employers.
Most importantly, unions must nurture union democracy by empowering workers within their own union structures. Low-wage women and people of color must be given opportunities to lead their unions. As in the past, there is every indication that given the opportunity, these are the workers who will be the catalyst for a revitalized movement to build power for working people.
Jenny Carson is a professor of American history at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, and has recently completed a dissertation on laundry workers.
Nell Geiser recently graduated from Columbia University where she majored in comparative ethnic studies and wrote her senior thesis on the laundry workers union in New York.
If you or a friend or relative worked or organized in the laundry industry in New York or elsewhere, we would love to hear from you.
Please contact us at: Jenny Carson, 416-506-1313 or jenny.carson @ utoronto.ca Nell Geiser, nell.geiser @ gmail.com