Immigrant women beat cigar company bosses - Martha Grevatt

Striking cigar workers march, 1937
Striking cigar workers march, 1937

A short history of the wave of sitdown strikes by predominantly Polish women cigar makers in Detroit in 1937.

Submitted by Steven. on December 8, 2015

When you think of the 1930s, one of the first things that come to mind is the great struggle of the United Auto Workers to organize Detroit’s biggest employers. In fact there were numerous sit-down strikes outside the auto industry. Courageous women led many, including a cigar-makers sit-down strike that lasted over two months.

In 1937 six cigar factories occupied a four-square-mile area bordered by Milwaukee, Grandy, St. Aubin and Warren Avenue. In these factories 4,000 women, mostly Polish-speaking, toiled all day long.

Their wages, having been cut 35 to 50 percent since the 1929 stock market crash, were among the lowest in all of Detroit. Toxic tobacco dust was always in the air, with ventilation poor to nonexistent. The few available toilets were of a primitive type or, if modern, dirty and often broken. The factory owners provided no soap or hot water. Sexual harassment from foremen was routine.

A Citizen’s Fact Finding Committee concluded that the workers in the cigar factories “have to work with terrific speed which affects them physically and mentally. They become highly nervous and irritable and at night they are so physically exhausted that a matter of recreation is prohibited.” (Wayne State University, Walter P. Reuther Library, Dorothy Kraus Collection, Box 1, Folder 6)

Inspired by the auto plant sit-down strikes in Detroit and Flint, these women were ready to fight back.

On Feb. 16, five days after the occupation of General Motors plants in Flint won union recognition for the UAW, workers at the Websten-Eisenlohr cigar factory sat down. They had put a notice on the bulletin board in Polish telling the women to stay in. They’d asked management for a 10-percent raise but got no reply.

They stopped production. But now they had a new problem. They had no union.

The conservative, craft-based American Federation of Labor had a Cigar Workers Union — but had ignored the women’s repeated pleas for help. Instead the workers sent a delegation to UAW headquarters to demand that Polish-born Stanley Nowak, head of the Polish Trade Union Committee, be their organizer.

They knew Nowak from his weekly Polish radio program and his frequent appearances at Dom Polski (Polish Home), both of which he used to promote unionism. The delegation sat down in the union office until Nowak agreed to help them unionize the cigar industry.

Within six hours the women had formed an organization. There were committees for drawing up demands, providing food, bedding and child care, and establishing a strike headquarters.

In a matter of days the five other cigar companies — Mazer-Cressman, Essex Cigar, Bernard Schwartz, Tegge-Jackson and General Cigar — were also occupied.

On the evening of Feb. 19 the strikers held a mass meeting at Dom Polski, which ended with a huge march that passed by all six factories.

The women garnered widespread support from the UAW and other Detroit-area unions, as well as local businesses that provided bread, sausage and other food items.

The spouses, fathers, brothers and adult sons found themselves taking on tasks that traditionally fall on women during a strike: child care, housework, staffing the strike kitchen, winning over hostile spouses and maintaining support outside the plants.

One striker described the joy of empowerment, writing: “Some of us sitting here are doing fancy knitting work. Others are playing cards. A few are in the ‘kitchen’ making noodles. There is music and the younger girls, with gay cellophane ribbons in their hair, are dancing. We’ve got to pass the time away, because, like one worker said, ‘We’re gonna stick it out until past Easter, if necessary.’ The auto victory showed us how.

“It all sounds like a lark, doesn’t it? But we are serious, dead serious.” (“Women and the Labor Movement: From the First Trade Unions to the Present,” Philip S. Foner)

On March 4 management at Mazer-Cressman agreed to the women’s demands. On March 5 Essex also settled.

On March 20, however, with the other four plants still occupied, Detroit’s Mayor Frank Couzens ordered a brutal crackdown. Police broke down the doors at Bernard Schwartz. They grabbed women by the arms, twisting them, and nearly pulled off their hair and clothing as they dragged the heroic strikers — now a month into their occupation — to the streets.

Sympathetic bystanders were also assaulted. A pregnant woman was thrown off her porch.

Labor’s outrage was immediate. UAW President Homer Martin threatened “a general strike in the automobile industry ... unless the brutal eviction of sit-down strikers and the ruthless clubbing of workers by Detroit Police is stopped.” (“Two Who Were There, A Biography of Stanley Nowak,” Margaret Collingsworth Nowak)

At a rally of 200,000 people on March 24 in Cadillac Square, the UAW’s Victor Reuther threatened a two-for-one: two new sit-downs for every one eviction.

On April 1 a delegation of strikers met with Michigan Gov. Frank Murphy. The governor promised to look into their situation — but not until a sit-down at Chrysler was settled.

That happened on April 7 and finally on April 22, more than two months into the strike, representatives from management met with the cigar strikers in Murphy’s office. By the end of the day an agreement was signed.

On April 23 the strike’s end was announced. By May 17 the cigar makers finally had a union of their own: the newly formed Cigar Workers Union Local 24 affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

These brave women, whose first language was not English, were among the millions who played a critical role in building the CIO.

Taken from
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