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Monkey business in Union Square: a cultural analysis of the Klein's-Ohrbach's strikes of 1934-5.

Introduction: Strike As Drama

Labor historians in recent years have treated strikes as relatively marginal events, prefering instead to focus the cultural worlds and day-to-day lives of working-class people. In comparison to the rich meanings and analysis these "new labor historians" have unearthed in day-to-day life, strikes seem dull events indeed, especially as described by the "old labor history" of John R. Commons and his students. I would argue, as other historians have recently suggested, that strikes are in fact central to working class history, and that by redefining strikes we will be able to make them as rich and complex as any other facet of working-class life. Although the dictionary defines a strike as "a temporary stoppage of [work] in order to bring about compliance with demands," historians can better understand a strike as a cultural act, as a drama which workers use to convey their messages to potential supporters. (1)

The importance of adopting this cultural definition of a strike is that it enables historians to use strikes differently. While strikes-as-work-stoppage force us to dismiss strikes as dull events to be passed over in favor of more revealing passages in working-class life, a cultural definition allows us to look at the messages inherent in the strike-drama. This includes both the messages which the strikers intend to convey, and other messages which we can perceive by close examination of the strike. In this way, we can force strikes to serve as valuable sources for historical information.

Novelist Leane Zugsmith demonstrated the validity of this sort of cultural analysis in a passage from A Time To Remember, her fictionalized account of the strikes which took place at the Klein's and Ohrbach's stores in New York City's Union Square during the winter and early spring of 1934-5. In this passage, Aline, a young woman worker, is about to go onstage during a store-sponsored play performed by store employees. Nervous because she and her fellow workers had voted the night before to go on strike, Aline stops just before she is about to go onstage, goes to her empty dressing room, retrieves a handful of strike leaflets, and then goes onstage. Once on stage, instead of reciting her written lines, Aline proceeds to toss the leaflets out over the audience while making a speech about the strike that will begin the next day. In this brief passage, Aline has taken the boss's stage and stolen it. She has made it, for a moment at least, a vehicle for a worker's message; she has announced the strike by creating a drama. (2)

Aline's fictional actions are potentially full of meanings about the competing messages of employers and employees and the theater as a contested space, but these fictional actions pale in comparison to the real actions of workers during the same strikes at Klein's and Ohrbach's. In this paper, I perform a detailed cultural analysis of the actions taken during the Klein's-Ohrbach's strikes, the strikes Zugsmith addresses in her novel. In the dramas surrounding these strikes, I argue, one can find at least four prominent messages. First, there is clear evidence that the strikers analyzed the Klein's-Ohrbach's strike as a struggle of white-collar workers. Second, the strikers attempted to take advantage of the stores as a contested space between customers and management. Third, the strikers made a similar attempt to take advantage of the contests over Union Square among communists, workers, police, and store owners. Fourth, and last, these strikes demonstrate a complex gender system, which allowed working-class women a relatively large degree of agency.

"For All White-Collar Workers"

In general, retail workers were among the worst-paid workers in Depression-era New York City. The pay for such workers was lowest at downscale stores like Klein's and Ohrbach's, stores which catered primarily to working-class consumers. In 1932, a Klein's worker named Stella Ormsby wrote that "the girls whom [Klein] had displaced were receiving ten dollars per week and they were all discharged in favor of the new group who were getting only eight." For those eight dollars, workers were often expected to put in fifty-seven hours in hot, stuffy, and overcrowded stores. (3)

Poorly paid and overworked, workers at these stores began forming unions in 1934. In December of that year, managers at Klein's fired 87 members of the communist-led Office Workers Union (OWU), a Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) affiliate. During that same month, December of 1934, approximately 100 workers under OWU leadership had already gone on strike against Ohrbach's, a store just a few doors away from Klein's which employed close to 1400 workers. Ohrbach's workers, probably encouraged by the passage of the federal government's support for unions with the National Industrial Recovery Act, demanded a pay raise, a 40-hour work week and an end to discrimination for union activity. Encouraged by the Ohrbach's workers' strike, the laid-off Klein's workers formed a picket line and began their own strike. (4)

The strikers were never able to shut down the stores. The overwhelming majority of workers, in fact, were unwilling to go on strike, despite the low wages and heavy workload. Many of the workers simply had to protect their jobs, especially since it was not unusual for a worker at Klein's or Ohrbach's to support a family on his or her meager salary of eight to ten dollars a week. In addition, the State Supreme Court granted Ohrbach's an anti-picketing injunction, allowing police to arrest those strikers who attempted to form a mass picket line and block customers' entrance to the stores. (5)

Since workers could not shut down the stores, they had to convince customers not to shop at Ohrbach's and Klein's. To do this, they relied upon drama. Specifically, they created a set of dramatic and often illegal tactics which they called "monkey business," which were intended to disrupt the stores' operation wherever possible. (6)

To perform the often technically complex acts which their monkey business campaign required, store workers needed help. Luckily, through the OWU and the TUUL, the workers gained a number of supporters, primarily among white-collar workers. The strikers made a conscious effort to recruit these workers to their cause. Again and again in the strike literature, one sees reference to the label of retail work as white-collar work and retail workers as white-collar workers. Ruth Pinkson, an office worker who was also the ex-national organizer for the Office Workers Union, remembered these strikes as the "first big white-collar strikes in New York City," and suggested that the strikes were seen by many white-collar workers as a test case. In her novel, Zugsmith referred at one point to Aline's discovery "that a victory for them would be a victory for workers in all department stores, for all white-collar workers, for the labor movement as a whole." And Arnold Honig, a Klein's striker, suggested that the strike proved that even white-collar workers could be "good, militant fighters who can dose a backward boss with a good assortment of hell-fire." (7)

The category of "white-collar," which these strikers used so successfully, was an extremely complex one. Particularly during the 1930s, people who might think of themselves as members of the middle class were unusually willing to define themselves as white-collar workers. Edward Dahlberg, a writer who joined the Klein's-Ohrbach's picket line, wrote about the issues raised by the Depression for white-collar workers:

The college diploma was the exchange currency in the student's mind ... for a ritzy law office and a motor car.... Marriage for the department store girl, being another economic diploma, was thought of in terms of leisure and West End Avenue, and the Holy Grail for the writer was the boulevards of Paris ... but with vast unemployment, evictions, empty stomachs, and] the wholesale slashing of wages these sleepy, moving picture wishes lost for the wisher[s] whatever little reality they once had.

The Depression, in Dahlberg's eyes at least, had destroyed the privileges which had once allowed some workers to define themselves as middle class. As a result, some members of the middle class found it "impossible and suicidal ... to stand aloof," and instead decided to organize, to begin to think of themselves as part of the working class, as white-collar workers. By using the term "white collar worker" to describe themselves, therefore, department store workers implicitly called upon a wide range of supporters, including office workers, chemists, doctors, actors, journalists, and writers. (8)

These allies were particularly useful during the strikers' theme rallies, where strikers were able to most clearly convey the support they had from other white-collar workers. Most Saturdays, the strikers held a theme rally in Union Square. Two of their most successful were Theatrical Day and Writers' Day, when theatrical workers and writers were called upon to come out and support their fellow white-collar workers by marching the picket line with the strikers. On Writers' Day, prominent novelists like James T. Farrell and Nathanael West joined Leane Zugsmith and Edward Dahlberg on the picket line, and got arrested for breaking the anti-picketing injunction. Other white-collar workers also showed their support. On Theatrical Day, the entire cast of the off-Broadway play The Shores of Cattano came down to the picket line. They, too, got arrested for breaking the injunction, and the play's performance that night was canceled. Supposedly, when the announcement was made that the play had to be canceled since the cast was in jail, the audience burst into applause as a show of support for the cast. (9)

There were at least two reasons for emphasizing the white-collar nature of the strike in theme rallies and strike literature. First, the strikers, through this analysis, found a way to think about the connections between their strike and a larger class struggle. Second, as we have already seen, it gave them a number of allies. Throughout the strike, whether the strikers wanted to fill Union Square with people or to lay claim to the stores, they found other white-collar workers ready to help.

Particularly to challenge the bosses' control over the stores, the strikers would need this help.

Contested Spaces In The Stores

Workers began their monkey-business campaign with attacks within the stores, actions designed to create confusion and disarray for those shoppers who crossed the picket line and shopped at Ohrbach's or Klein's. Often, white-collar allies would help them in these campaigns. At one point, for example, a chemist who was a member of the TUUL-affiliated Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians (FAECT) provided the employees with a box of white mice. The employees took the box into Klein's and let the mice run free, thus "frightening women shoppers who entered the store in ignorance of the fact that a strike is in progress there," as the Daily Worker put it. (10)

Other actions were perhaps less frightening to customers, but created the same tense atmosphere within the stores. One day, strikers at Ohrbach's gave children of shoppers entering the store balloons reading "Don't Buy At Ohrbach's!" As Clarina Michelson, who led the OWU's Department Store Section at the time, remembered, "When the children would go into the store, the managers would have to run up and take the balloons away," causing the children to get upset and leading to loud arguments between store managers and the childrens' parents. On occasions like these, as Pinkson later remembered, "people started to get afraid to go into the store, because they didn't know what [the screaming] was all about." (11)

Some of the strikers' goals during actions like these are extremely obvious. By interfering with the daily functioning of the stores, the strikers undoubtedly wished to prevent the stores from making money during the strike, which hopefully would make the store owners more willing to settle the strike quickly. In this way, these actions greatly resembled the sabotage tactics used, among others, by the Industrial Workers of the World earlier in the twentieth century.

The actions inside the stores were also significant in other, more subtle ways, when one considers the complex task of running a low-cost store like Klein's or Ohrbach's in the 1930s. When operating such a store, managers had to make certain both that customers wanted to shop at the stores, and that, once customers entered the store, those customers would be under the control of management. By cutting customer services to the bare minimum and thereby offering extremely low prices, managers at both stores managed to attract large numbers of customers. In fact, in the 1930s, working-class people throughout New York City, but particularly from the immigrant communities of the Lower East Side and the outer boroughs of Brooklyn and the Bronx, regularly went to Klein's and Ohrbach's to do their shopping. (12)

While store managers were therefore successful in stimulating customer demand, they found controlling customers much more difficult. Their customers often behaved in an unruly manner, particularly during sales, when working-class consumers sought to stock up on as much clothing as possible. Novelist Albert Halper described one sale, for example: "Greater crowds of women were now storming all the entrances to Klein's ... overturning tables stacked with handbags and blouses." Managers at both stores employed private security guards in part to deal with these sorts of unruly crowds. (13)

The most important customer practice which store managers attempted to control was shoplifting. Since customers had direct access to merchandise at Klein's and Ohrbach's (a practice already abandoned at higher-priced stores), shoplifting was extremely common at these stores, and it could easily cost store owners like Klein and Ohrbach $100,000 a year. Working-class consumers not only practiced shoplifting within these stores, but they passed the skill on to their children. (14)

Managers at both stores controlled this practice as best they could, often with little success. While store employees could have been extremely useful in helping to catch shoplifters, they were, in many ways, caught in between the customers and the store managers. On the one hand, not only were department store workers members of the same class as most of the stores' customers, but they also shared ethnic and neighborhood ties to the customers. They, like the customers, were primarily Jewish-American and Italian-American women; like the customers, many of them came from immigrant communities (most of the store workers, at least at Ohrbach's, were the children of immigrants rather than immigrants themselves), by this time mostly located in the city's outer boroughs. On the other hand, part of a store worker's job was to catch shoplifters, and Ohrbach's and Klein's extensive networks of informants and detectives ensured that any store workers who did take part in shoplifting, even to the point of allowing custo mers to get away with it, might well get caught themselves. (15)

Since most store workers were of limited help, store managers sought other methods to control their customers. The private security guards were responsible for keeping an eye out for shoplifters as well as making sure that customers did not crowd the entrances. In addition, managers at Klein's hung huge posters on the interior walls of the store in five different languages warning that "Dishonesty Means Prison" and that prison meant "disgrace to your family." There is some disagreement, however, about how regularly managers carried out these threats. Supporters of Klein claimed that "the few who disregard these formalities and get caught [shoplifting] usually end up in the 'crying room,' ... [where] he listens to their excuses," and often allowed them to go free. One employee at Klein's, however, wrote that "it is well known that Mr. Klein prosecutes [shoplifters] to the bitter end," unlike department store managers who catered to wealthier consumers. (16)

Both Klein's and Ohrbach's were bitterly contested spaces during the early years of the Great Depression; managers sought to more thoroughly control their customers, and customers avoided managerial control, often successfully. With these constant struggles between managers and customers, the workers' actions during the Klein's-Ohrbach's strikes take on new meanings. Strikers certainly intended to disrupt the daily functioning of the store, but in order to do so, they played into the already-existing struggles of managers and customers, and, as a result, created a very difficult situation for store managers. By letting mice loose and destroying elevators, store workers contributed to the often chaotic atmosphere within the store. As a result, during the strikes, managers' at tempts to control customers were temporarily challenged by the strikers' attempts to control managers.

Contested Spaces (2): Outside the Stores

Directly outside the stores, Union Square was an even more hotly contested space than the stores themselves. Police and working-class demonstrators fought pitched battles in the streets surrounding Union Square, as communists fought with store owners and other local business owners over control of the three or four square blocks which made up Union Square.

The strikers quickly began using the Square as a space in which to carry on strike activities. As already indicated, every Saturday, the strikers made it known that the Square belonged to them and their allies, staging long and sometimes quite dramatic rallies, which often ended in arrests. In addition, strikers launched attacks on the exterior of the store buildings, effectively re-decorating these buildings as strike weapons. Pinkson remembered one such incident, when the strikers actually etched the words "STRIKE--DON'T ENTER" into the window of the Ohrbach's store, to the anger of management and the confusion of customers. (17)

Perhaps the most pointed attempt on the strikers' part to make Union Square the center of a drama, however, was their use of the statue of George Washington. At the time there was a large statue of Washington in Union Square, seated on horseback with his arm pointing forward. Early one morning the strikers took one of their strike posters, reading "Don't Buy At Ohrbach's," and placed it on the statue's outstretched arm. The symbol of freedom, Washington himself, had become a strike supporter, at least until the sign was removed later that day. (18)

Again, actions like these were in part simply about letting the public know that a strike was in progress, and thereby preventing customers from entering the stores. However, as with the strikers' actions within the stores, their actions within the Square also had more complex meanings, particularly when placed in the context of the struggles going on before the strikes began.

During the Great Depression, Union Square became what historian and journalist Matthew Josephson described as "New York's Red Square ... the very vortex of revolutionary activities" in New York City. Josephson went on to describe his impression of Union Square in the early l930s. On one day when he visited the Square, he recalled, "Soapboxers were going on in routine fashion: 'Garbage! That's what the bosses give the American workers,' one of them shouted suddenly. His small audience responded with a roar of laughter, some of them waving placards with slogans such as 'Jobs--Not Charity.'" While Josephson describes the crowds as fairly passive, other observers suggested that the audience frequently gathered not only to listen to the various speakers, but to argue with other listeners or even with the speakers themselves about the issues being discussed. One WPA worker, writing a few years later, described the Square as the site of nearly endless debates, suggesting that the soapbox speakers transformed the Squ are into a "diminutive Hyde Park," a space where working-class people came to speak on political issues. (19)

The long political debates extended also to buildings around the Square's border. A number of small cafeterias lined Union Square, and one working-class woman who frequented them when she was young remembered that it was in those cafeterias that she had learned about literature and politics, primarily from other people her own age. Many young people would sit in the cafeterias for hours, talking about unions, class struggle, racism, or whatever other subjects happened to come up. Like the soapbox speakers, the cafeterias offered working-class people places to debate and discuss a wide range of issues. (20)

Political rallies in Union Square also allowed working-class people to express their opinions on political issues. Rallies had been a part of the Square's history throughout the late 19th century, but during the Depression these rallies became larger and generally more violent, as police struggled to gain greater control over the growing crowds of protesters. Protests took place nearly every week in the early 1930s around issues ranging from the wrongful arrest of the Scottsboro Boys to unemployment relief, and any of these protests could end in violence. Albert Halper, a novelist who lived just off Union Square at the time, later remembered that "there were weekly left-wing parades which frequently ended with clubbings by the police. On Saturday mornings, I could see the mounted cops in the side streets, bunched together, resting, healthy faced, chatting cheerfully before the afternoon's action." (21)

While many came to Union Square to engage in political expressions of one form or another, others--particularly women--came to the Square to shop in the numerous cheap stores which lined the Square's southern border. Here, too, the Depression affected peoples' presence within Union Square, as women in particular responded to the Depression by being more careful with their spending habits, and by bargain-hunting at stores like those bordering on the Square. As a result, Klein's actually did more business during the Depression than during the 1920s. In addition to these indoor establishments, street-peddlers selling low-priced food and other goods filled the southern end of the Square. Combined with the easy access to the Square by public transportation, these stores made Union Square "the place where we came to shop," as a working-class woman who often frequented the Square remembered. (22)

Whatever the reasons that prompted crowds to fill Union Square, building owners around the Square were very aware of the crowd's presence, and many attempted to control the crowd's activities by putting up signs. On the southern side of the Square, Klein's managers put huge signs in his store's windows advising customers of the "tremendous values in fur coats" and reminding them that customers had a right to their "money back within five days." Even the water tank, standing up above the rest of the building, carried with it the name of the firm, "Klein's."

On the northwest corner of the Square stood another building, also covered in signs. These signs, however, called for viewers to "Fight Police Terror, Unemployment, and War Preparations!" They called "for Defense of the Soviet Union!" and for the struggle of "class against class!" This building was the office building of the Daily Worker, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the United States (CP). (23)

While signs were an important way of attracting people's attention, both retail owners and communists also used pageantry to attract supporters. Communists staged most of the weekly protests which took place in Union Square during this era, as well as what was probably the largest and most important protest in New York City during the Great Depression. During their International Unemployment Day protest on March 6,1930, as many as 100,000 protesters gathered to hear speeches calling for "immediate relief for the jobless from the funds of the city treasury and from taxes on the wealthy exploiters, for unemployment insurance paid for by the employers and administered by committees of the workers and unemployed, and for the seven-hour day and the five-day week." The speakers--most of them CP officials--called on the huge crowd which had gathered to elect a committee to take their demands to City Hall. The crowd roared back at the podium, apparently in agreement, and eventually a number of CP officials volunteere d to serve as the Workers' Committee. However, when the protesters attempted to follow the Committee to City Hall, the Square became the site of a bloody battle. Police emerged, many with nightsticks, many on horseback, and, in order to prevent what they perceived as the beginnings of a riotous attack on City Hall, they began beating those protesters who were attempting to march south. Most of the crowd fled in the confusion; police arrested those who did not escape quickly enough. (24)

International Unemployment Day and the smaller protests which frequently took place in Union Square served several functions. First, these protests allowed workers to express their political views; as already noted, in this respect they might be seen as similar to the soapbox speakers and the cafeterias which lined the Square. Second, communist-led protests frequently presented communists as the leaders of the working class. The Workers' Committee, made up of communists, was, after all, supposed to represent the city's workers, although most workers in New York City would hardly have accepted this representation. Finally, protests in Union Square allowed the communists an opportunity to lay claim to Union Square as their space, to force Josephson and other observers to acknowledge that it was, in fact, a "Red Square."

Business managers operating in the Square also found pageantry a useful tool to exert control over Union Square. The Union Square Centennial Celebration, held on April 23 of 1932, was little more than a lightly veiled challenge to the communists' presence in Union Square. Among other things, the celebration began with a large and very well-publicized "Americanization meeting," which featured former governor and Democratic presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith giving a speech on equality in America. Smith, well-aware of the significance of Union Square for communists and others who attacked ruling-class privilege, opened his speech by stating that "there is no such thing as a ruling class, though that phrase is often used to arouse passion." (25)

During the Centennial Celebration, local business managers' call for Union Square as a public space for anti-communism was perhaps best illustrated by the actions of the police. As the New York Times described their participation, the police presented both "an exhibition drill ... in the art of handling a pistol and disarming prisoners," and, even more importantly, a second "exhibition drill by a company of the Police Rifle Regiment in riot drill and formation," which ended in "a bayonet charge into a mythical [rioting] crowd." This bayonet charge, taking place as it did on the very site of so many actual confrontations between police and communist-led protesters, could hardly be described as anything but an open threat to the communists, and a fairly direct challenge to their continued presence m Union Square. (26)

Smith's casual denial of the existence of class in America and the Police Rifle Regiment's demonstration of crowd-control tactics did nothing to prevent the communists from using Union Square for May Day, only one week later. As usual, communists gathered in Union Square to mark the occasion. That year, despite heavy rain, the thousands of participants in the annual march gathered in the Square for a few minutes before proceeding onwards to Columbus Circle. If the Centennial Celebration was intended as a threat, the communists clearly did not respond as the backers of the Centennial Celebration hoped they would. (27)

Local businessmen therefore resolved to continue their campaign against communism in their neighborhood. Only a few weeks after that 1932 May Day protest, local business owners and managers formed the Union Square Association, an organization intended to "advance the interest of Union Square as a patriotic center." Samuel Klein served on the new Association's Board of Directors. (28)

Both store-owners and communists, therefore, made similar uses of Union Square in the early 1930s. First, both attempted to control the environment in Union Square through signs and pageants, and to use that environment to communicate with working-class people--both potential consumers and potential communists--in the Square. Second, as part of these campaigns, store-owners and communists were extremely conscious of their image in the minds of the working-class people who frequented Union Square. The communists wanted working-class people to view them as the legitimate representatives of the working class. They used the dramatic International Unemployment Day protest, before it erupted into violence, to make some of their leaders just such representatives, through the Workers' Committee which the protesters chose. The store-owners used the environment to encourage working-class people to shop in their stores.

As they did in the stores, the strikers took advantage of the contested space of Union Square in their attempt to force management to negotiate with them. By redecorating the store buildings and statues, and by holding their own rallies and marches in Union Square, the strikers took a hand in the struggle over Union Square, and presented yet another challenge to managers' attempts to control their environment and thereby to control their potential customers.

Working Women: The Sit-In At the Waldorf

The event which represented the climax to the entire strike took place far from Union Square, in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldoff-Astoria Hotel during a dinner given to honor senior doctors at Brooklyn Hospital. Since he was on the hospital's Board of Trustees, Nathan Ohrbach was invited to sit at the dinner, along with New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Some doctors, who identified themselves as white-collar workers and were sympathetic toward the strikers, offered to get tickets to the event for a number of strikers. The strikers, knowing both that the mayor would be there and that the entire event would be broadcast on the radio, accepted the offer. (29)

Here was Zugsmith's theatrical metaphor played out for high stakes. Ohrbach had a forum with a large audience of radio listeners, and had helped to create a drama to demonstrate his role as a great philanthropist in supporting the Hospital. And strikers and their supporters were ready to steal the forum, to make their own message, that Ohrbach was an exploiter of workers, the outstanding one. On the night of January 20, dressed in their finest evening clothes, several strikers surreptitiously entered the Waldorf-Astoria. As LaGuardia began to speak of the important work done by Ohrbach and by the doctors themselves, a woman striker spoke up from the balcony. "I want to introduce myself. I am an Ohrbach striker," she called out. (30)

Another woman striker spoke up from nearby in the balcony: "Nathan Ohrbach may give thousands to charity, but he doesn't pay his workers a living wage." Security rushed over, only to find out that both women had chained themselves to the balcony to prevent their eviction. (31) The guards immediately sent for hacksaws, and, as the audience struggled to make sense of the event, another striker, also in the balcony, took handfuls of flyers about the strike and tossed them out over the audience, to the amazement of all concerned. According to the New York Times, LaGuardia continued to speak, although without being heard, since both workers were also speaking. (32)

The taking of the Waldorf serves as perhaps the clearest demonstration of the importance of messages and drama in strikes, and there are again multiple meanings to this action. Certainly the message which the workers intended to convey was well-expressed by the strikers who chained themselves to the balcony: that any money Ohrbach gave away resulted from his exploitation of workers. In addition, however, this action, like so many others, illustrates the surprisingly central role played by women in the strike. While a number of the strikers were men (no exact figures are available), strike leaders asked two women to invade the Waldorf. (33)

The decision to use women in this action suggests the important and complex role of working-class women in communist politics during the early and mid-1930s. Communists clearly expected working-class women to be helpmates to working men. During the strike, articles in Working Woman, the CP women's newspaper, addressed issues such as how a working woman could dress without spending much money, what sorts of foods would most efficiently feed her family, and the importance of women's auxiliaries during men's strikes. Only once during this period did the editors print a letter about a wife who was having problems with her husband, and that was when her husband did not like the idea of his wife joining the Communist Party. (34)

As part of this concept of the helpmate to the working-class man, Working Woman devoted a number of articles to more obviously political issues centered around the home, most importantly birth control and consumption-based activism. Particularly in the early 1930s, editors printed a number of articles on the proper methods of birth control in Working Woman. In addition, the editors devoted several articles to the food boycotts in New York City during the early 1930s, boycotts which were led by women. (35)

The notion of the woman as home-based activist was only one of the ways in which communists politicized women's role as home-maker. Women also served as powerful symbols of workers' poverty and hardship in communist literature. One contributor to Working Woman identified women as the true victims of the Great Depression. "The wife of the unemployed gets the worst of it. She is the one to answer her childrens' cry for bread. She has got to face the landlord. All the misery of the shortage, of keeping the family from starvation in time of unemployment falls heaviest on the housewife." (36)

To this vision of the politicized home-maker as both symbol and activist, the editors of Working Woman added extensive coverage of women's struggles in the workplace. Contributors constantly discussed women who were involved in the labor movement, and they portrayed women strikers not only as newsworthy and admirable, but also as militant fighters for the proletariat, much like male strikers were. (37)

This complex analysis forced the communists involved with the strike to deal with gender in a rather contradictory way. Take, for example, Leane Zugsmith's description of the fictional scene at strike headquarters when the strikers discovered that they had won the strike:

The floor quakes under their stamping feet. The ear drums recoil at the roar of rejoicing. Peck Hirschberg rushes outside to tell the pickets and call them off. Duke prances like a bear on his hind legs, forcing May Lundstrom to curvet with him. Mrs. Bauer's stumpy frame is shaken by shuddering sobs and her little girl, hanging onto her skirt, looks up with a puckered face, ready to cry with her mother. With a kind of ferocity, Manny Lorch and Muriel Cline hug each other, their eyes glazes with joy. (38)

At the moment of victory, Zugsmith places her women characters in some fairly traditional poses: they cry, hug men, and dance, while at least one man has a constructive reaction, as he "rushes outside to tell the pickets and call them off." At the same time, in A Time To Remember, Zugsmith, more perhaps than any other proletarian novelist, gave attention to the militancy and importance of women in class struggle. Women adopted these traditional poses in a moment of celebration that took place only because of women activists' militancy during the strike.

These contradictions made women ideal actors in the sit-in at the Waldorf-Astoria. Women, as already noted, could serve as both powerful symbols of exploitation as well as militant agents to end that exploitation. Both of these aspects which communists identified with women were clearly present during the Waldorf sit-ins, which were clearly intended to convey both the strikers' militancy as well as the workers' exploitation. The sit-in was therefore rife with just the sorts of contradictions which communists identified with proletarian womanhood, and women became obvious and crucial actors in its realization.

The sit-in was at least somewhat successful. The newspapers gave the event fairly extensive coverage in the next day's papers. At the same time, with the exception of the Daily Worker, the press was overwhelmingly opposed to the strike and the two strikers who chained themselves to the balcony in particular, dismissing the strikers as "hecklers" who had disrupted a charitable event and had created chaos during the mayor's speech. (39)

Still, the strikers' drama that night in the Waldorf was a successful one. Their actions, and not the amounts of the charitable donations which Nathan Ohrbach had given to the hospital, were the actions which the newspapers recorded, and their speech had been broadcast on live radio. It was, in many ways, the strikers' greatest success.


The invasion of the Waldorf turned the tide of the strike, and finally gave the union a victory, although it was a limited victory at best. In the early spring of 1935, managers at both stores offered to hire back the strikers. Klein's managers offered workers reinstatement and back pay; Ohrbach, who handled the negotiations himself, refused to grant strikers the raise they had demanded, but did issue a verbal contract guaranteeing a shorter working day. The union failed to win recognition as the workers' official bargaining agent at either store. (40)

More tragic than the compromised settlement were the mass firings in the aftermath of the strikes. Within weeks after the strikes ended, managers at both stores began steadily firing workers who had participated in the strikes. Most workers, having survived for five months with no income during some of the worst years of the Great Depression, decided not to return to the picket line, though about twenty Ohrbach's workers did go back on strike, and eventually won a negotiated written settlement. (41)

The Klein's-Ohrbach's strikes nevertheless retain an importance that far outweighs the number of participants involved, or the defeat with which the strikes ended. Their importance lies primarily in the way that these strikes lend themselves to a cultural analysis. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine seeing a sign on the outstretched arm of George Washington, or having workers disrupt a radio broadcast, and not attempting some sort of cultural analysis of these events. These strikes are replete with messages for the historian, messages about the nature of white-collar working-class identity, working-class consumption, the contested space of Union Square, and women's role in communist protest during the 1930s.

While the Klein's-Ohrbach's strikes serve as particularly good examples of the need for a cultural analysis of strikes, they are not unique. While not all strike supporters re-decorate buildings and interrupt radio broadcasts with voices of their own, all have cultural messages to convey. Strikers carry picket signs and banners, create chants, sing songs, and distribute leaflets. These sorts of acts are, almost by definition, cultural acts. As historians of working-class life and culture, I would suggest that we must analyze these sorts of messages in greater detail, and by so doing, continue to revise and complicate our thinking about strikes.

Department of History

New York, NY 10012


For their valuable critiques, I would like to thank Tami Friedman, Robin Kelley, and Daniel Walkowitz, as well as the members of Professor Kelley's Seminar on 20th Century U.S. History, New York University, Spring 2000. An abridged version of this paper was presented at the Protest Issues and Actions panel of the American Cultural Association -- Popular Cultural Association 2001 Conference, April 2001, and I would like to thank panel chair Lotte Larsen as well as my fellow presenters and the panel audience. Finally, I would like to thank both New York University and the ACA-PCA for their financial assistance for attending that conference.

(1.) For this definition of strikes, see Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Springfield, Mass., 1981), 2262. Robin Kelley argues explicitly that drama serves as a very useful metaphor to describe twentieth-century working-class protest (specifically civil-rights protest in the American South) in "Congested Terrain: Resistance on Public Transportation," in Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York, 1994), 55-75. While they do not specifically address the issue of the ways in which we define the term "strike," both Ardis Cameron, in Radicals of the Worst Sort: Laboring Women in Lawrence, Massachusetts (Urbana, 1993), and Elizabeth Faue, in Community of Suffering and Struggle: Women, Men, and the Labor Movement in Minneapolis, 1915-1945 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1991), along with many other historians, provide good cultural readings of working-class protest, including strikes.

(2.) Leane Zugsmith, A Time To Remember (New York, 1936), 211-3.

(3.) Stella Ormsby, "The Other Side of the Profile." The New Republic (17 August 1932), 21.

(4.) Arnold Honig, "The Klein-Ohrbach Strikes," Office Worker (February 1935), 3. For the numbers of strikers and workers, see also "S. Klein: On-The-Square Store Plays Santa to Its Employees," Newsweek (29 December 1934), 28, and "Girl Striker Heckles LaGuardia; Chained to Box, Foils Ejection" New York Times (21 January 1935), in "Ohrbach-Klein Clippings" Folder, Department Store Strikes and Organizing in the 1930s Papers, Tamiment Library, New York University (hereafter Clippings, DSSO Papers).

(5.) For the economic pressures faced by strikers and scabs alike, see Ann Barton, "Home Life," Daily Worker (28 January [1935?]), in Clippings, DSSO Papers. Ruth Pinkson, interviewed by author, Garret Park, Maryland, 10 March 2000 (hereafter Pinkson Interview), confirms this. For the anti-picketing injunction, see "125 Pickets Seized At Ohrbach Store," The New York Times (17 February 1935), in Clippings, DSSO Papers.

(6.) For the term "monkey business," see Clarina Michelson, interviewed by Debra Bernhardt, New York, 20 October 1979 (hereafter Michelson Interview).

(7.) Ruth Pinkson, "Life and Times of an Elderly Red Diaper Baby," in Judy Kaplan and Linn Shapiro, eds., Red Diapers: Growing Up In The Communist Left (Urbana, 1998), 233. Zugsmith, A Time To Remember, 251; Honig, "The Klein-Ohrbach Strikes," Office Worker (February 1935), 3.

(8.) Edward Dahlberg, "Authors Declare Solidarity With Our Strikes," Office Worker (February 1935), 4. On the subject of the Depression's effects on middle-class identity, see also Daniel Walkowitz, Working With Class: Social Workers and the Politics of Middle Class Identity (Chapel Hill, NC, 1999), 113-176.

(9.) "125 Pickets Seized at Ohrbach Store." See also Jay Martin, Nathaniel West: A Life in His Art. (New York, 1970), 255-8. For the Shores of Cattano incident, see Michelson Interview.

(10.) "Ohrbach Asks New Writ To Bar All Picketing By Striking Employees." Daily Worker (1 February 1935), in Clippings, DSSO Papers.

(11.) Pinkson Interview. For the chemists and their TUUL affiliate, the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians, see "Editorials," Office Worker (February 1935), 2. For the particular action, see Michelson Interview.

(12.) For this description of the shoppers in Union Square, see Anne Haicken, interviewed by author, Belleair Bluffs, FL, 4 August 2000 (hereafter Haicken Interview). See also Gertrude Reiss, interviewed by author, Brooklyn, NY 13 November 2000 (hereafter Reiss Interview). See also Nathan Ohrbach, Getting Ahead in Retailing (New York, 1935), 37-8.

(13.) Albert Halper, Good-bye, Union Square: A Writer's Memoir of the Thirties (Chicago, 1970), 100.

(14.) "S. Klein: On-The-Square Store Plays Santa to Its Employees," Newsweek (29 December 1934), 29. See also Haicken Interview.

(15.) For the close supervision and the responsibility to catch shoplifters, see Zugsmith, A Time To Remember, 60. For the connections between store workers and customers, see Haicken Interview.

(16.) "S. Klein: On-The-Square Store Plays Santa to Its Employees," Newsweek (December 29, 1934), 29; Stella Ormsby, "The Other Side of the Profile," 21. For shoplifting by wealthier customers in upscale stores and the relative leniency shown by store managers towards these shoplifting, see Elaine Abelson, When Ladies Go A-Thieving: Middle-Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store (Oxford, 1989).

(17.) Pinkson Interview.

(18.) Michelson Interview.

(19.) Matthew Josephson, Infidel In The Temple: A Memoir of the Nineteen-Thirties (New York, 1967), 126-7. Jacob Stein, interviewed by B. Hathaway, 27 December 1938, and Wayne Walden, "Conversations In A Park," 24 October 1938, both in Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, WPA Federal Writers' Project Collection. See also Arnold Eagle, "Man With Newspaper at Political Discussion Meeting, Union Square," Undated Photograph, in "Union Square--Park And General 2/2 (Photos)" Folder, Museum of the City of New York Archives (hereafter Union Square Folder, MCNY). While all of these sources indicate (it seems accurately) that most of the participants in these discussions were working-class men, it seems clear that women participated as well; see both Reiss Interview, and Arnold Eagle, "Men and Women in Discussion, Union Square," in Union Square Folder, MCNY.

(20.) Reiss Interview.

(21.) Albert Halper, Good-bye, Union Square: A Writer's Memoir of the Thirties, 79.

(22.) For the street peddlers, see Halper, Good-bye, Union Square, 79, and Arnold Eagle, "Female Street Vendor At Union Square," Undated Photograph, Union Square Folder, MCNY. For the importance of Klein's and Ohrbach's to Union Square, see Robert Hendrickson, The Grand Emporiums: The Illustrated History of America's Great Department Stores (New York, 1979), 443-445. See also Herman Kirschbaum, interviewed by B. Hathaway [Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, WPA Federal Writers' Project Collection], September 1938-January 1939. For the quotation, see Reiss Interview. For the effects of the Depression on Klein's in particular, see "S. Klein: On-The-Square Store Plays Santa to Its Employees," Newsweek (29 December 1934), 29.

(23.) Photograph of S. Klein's, 1928; United States History, Local History and Genealogy Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations; reprinted in Ellen Wiley Todd, The "New Woman" Revised: Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street (Berkeley, 1993), 100. Photograph of CP Headquarters on Union Square, Manhattan, 1930. rpt. in Michael Brown et al., New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism (New York, 1993), 14.

(24.) "110,000 Demonstrate In New York For Jobless Demands; Defy Police," Daily Worker (7 March 1930), 1, 3. See also "Workers' Newsreel, Unemployment Special, 1931" newsreel footage (New York, 198-), and Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Years (New York, 1984), 33-38.

(25.) "Union Square Marks Its Centenary Gayly," New York Times (24 April 1932), 17.

(26.) "Union Square is Ready for its Centennial," New York Times (22 April 1932), 20; "Union Square Marks Its Centenary Gayly," New York Times (24 April 1932), 17. While the city government was really the agent behind the Union Square celebration, it is very clear that local businessmen were closely involved with its planning. Among other things, the celebration luncheon was held in the restaurant within the Klein's store. See "Union Square Marks Its Centenary Gayly."

(27.) "Workers Line Both Sides Of Streets Despite Heavy Downpour in New York," Daily Worker (2 May 1932), 1.

(28.) For the formation of the Union Square Association, see "Form Union Square Group," New York Times (13 May 1932), 35.

(29.) Pinkson Interview; see also "Ohrbach Feast Spoiled By Two Comely Pickets Voicing Strike Demands," Daily Worker (22 January 1935), in Clippings, DSSO Papers.

(30.) This quotation is given in "Girl Striker Heckles La Guardia; Chained to Box, Foils Ejection," New York Times (21 January 1935) and "Ohrbach Feast Spoiled By Two Comely Pickets Voicing Strike Demands," Daily Worker (22 January 1935), both in Clippings, DSSO Papers.

(31.) Pinkson Interview.

(32.) Ibid; "Girl Striker Heckles La Guardia."

(33.) Haicken Interview.

(34.) "What Would You Do?" The Working Woman Contest, Working Woman (December 1934), 5.

(35.) On the issue of birth control see Grace Hutchins, "Birth Control," Working Woman (August 1935), 26; Dr. Margaret Lamont, "What Women Should Know," Working Woman (February 1934), 15. For an example of the articles on consumer struggles which appeared in Working Woman see Dora Rich, "Organize--Fight Against High Cost Of Living," Working Woman (November 1933), 10. For the history of consumer-based protest, see both Dana Frank, Purchasing Power: Consumer Organizing, Gender, and the Seattle Labor Movement, 1919-29 (Cambridge, 1994), Annelise Orleck, Common Sense and a Little Fire (Chapel Hill, 1995), and Susan Levine, "Workers' Wives: Gender, Class, and Consumerism in the 1920's US ," Gender and History 3, no. 11(1991), 45-64.

(36.) "Effects of Unemployment on Workers' Wives," Working Woman (February, 1930), 3.

(37.) See, for example, "Department Store Strike Front," Working Woman (February, 1935), 3.

(38.) Zugsmith, A Time To Remember, 347-8.

(39.) "Girl Striker Heckles La Guardia; Chained to Box, Foils Ejection," New York Times (21 January 1935), in Clippings, DSSO Papers.

(40.) Labor Research Association, "Some White Collar and Professional Worker' Strikes, 1934 to date" (March 19, 1936), 4, in Labor Research Association Folder, DSSO Papers.

(41.) Pinkson Interview.
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Author:Opler, Daniel
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