¡Huelga contra WPA!

July 7, 2009, 1:19 pm

Ferdie Pacheco, “The Lector Reads to Women Cigar Workers” (Detail)

Today brings another installment of “there is too interesting and nontrivial scholarship in today’s scholarly history journals,” this one drawn from the flagship journal of US history. The article touches on two of my favorite topics. One, I’ll grant, is a favorite for purely sentimental reasons: my native heath. The other, though, is of long-standing scholarly interest to this blog: the New Deal.


Elna C. Green, “Relief from Relief: The Tampa Sewing-Room Strike of 1937 and the Right to Welfare,” Journal of American History 95, no. 4 (March 2009). Accessed July 7, 2009, here.


How did WPA workers think of themselves—as workers, or as recipients of welfare? How did their employer, the state, see them in return?


As readers of this blog know, if WPA workers acted as if they were employed, it has important ramifications for how we assess the New Deal in retrospect. One of the ways you can get at this question is to look at aggregate behavior of WPA workers. Another way is to look at what they say about themselves. The latter is less social scientific, but sometimes quite arresting—as when you read in the New York Times, “We WPA workers want to work and be treated as workers.” But what did that mean for women workers?

To get at this question, Green looks at a 1937 sit-down strike of women’s sewing-room workers in Tampa. Tampa was basically a one-industry town, dependent on cigar manufacture—which, as the painting above indicates, relied pretty heavily on women workers, most of them from the “Latin” community (which included Cubans, Spanish, and Italians). So you had a community used to many of its women working that, when the crash came, could no longer employ them. There wasn’t much in the way of work till the 1935 WPA.

But New Deal officials focused chiefly on providing relief to the workers they saw as most essential—men at the head of a household. When women did get WPA jobs, they were mainly in sewing, which was the work unskilled women were presumed able to do. And the training they got was not vocational, but more like home ec—hygiene, infant care, first aid.1 Moreover, WPA wouldn’t employ married women, on the presumption that they should do household work while their husbands got a job.

WPA jobs didn’t pay particularly well nor provide terribly steady work either. But they were a last straw for many workers. So women competed fiercely for positions in WPA sewing-rooms, sometimes lying to conceal their marriages, desperate for work.

In 1937, erroneously convinced prosperity had returned and the economy no longer required federal support, Roosevelt cut WPA funding. We’ve seen what that meant for the economy as a whole. For WPA’s Tampa sewing-rooms, it meant a loss of 88 jobs. Which for women in the Ybor City sewing-room, it meant a spur to strike.

“Let’s stand together like they do in the north…. That’s the way to get your rights,” asked Mabel Hagan, one of the strike leaders. And for a short time—about a week—the strikers did. But the effort failed. WPA administrators offered to rehire some of the fired women—those with dependents, say—but pointed out they’d have to fire someone else. And they protested they couldn’t do anything about wages—those were set in Washington.

Black workers didn’t support the strike—they worked in a segregated sewing-room—though Anglos and Latin workers hung together for a while. A couple hundred men from other WPA projects struck in sympathy. But amid a strongly hostile reaction from the local business community and shoulder-shrugging intransigence from WPA, the strike folded within a week. The Latin workers—perhaps they had the most experience of factory work, from the cigar industry?—held out longest.

As Green points out, the episode shows the vulnerable condition of women WPA workers. Even if they regarded themselves as proper workers, WPA generally didn’t. And social prejudices as to women’s place supported WPA’s presumptions. Even though the strikers borrowed sit-down tactics and a rhetoric of solidarity from industrial unions, they had little experience of organization.

The strike ended with the workers being rehired—except the strike leaders. As Green writes, “The local hostile press reported with obvious glee when a tearful Mabel Hagan applied to the county commission for poor relief.” Apparently the strikers’ opponents, as well as the strikers themselves, knew the difference between the indignity of poor relief and even the slender respect attending a WPA job.

1Green makes a case that men employed by WPA had more job opportunities. Maybe. But a lot of that work was unskilled labor—digging to widen roads—and didn’t have a lot of obvious career upside. Green in addition makes a case that we should see this episode as a predecessor to the 1960s right to welfare movement but, as she acknowledges, there’s little similarity in language between the two, and people in the 1960s did not appeal to or even remember this story.

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