Throwback Thursday: Spanking Scabs and Fighting Coppers, Dallas Garment Workers Strike 1933-1936

Since the colonizers took their first steps on Indigenous land, women and non-binary folks have had to suffer indignities and oppression under the patriarchy.

Being a single woman working for a living, at that time, was looked down upon by the wives of the capitalist class in the city. Young girls were expected to go to church, find a man, marry and become a baby factory and homemaker.

In 1934, 100 Dallas dressmakers joined a grassroots “sewing club” shortly after the Supreme Court declared National Industrial Recovery Act codes stipulating minimum wages and maximum hours unconstitutional. Dallas garment workers who sewed cotton dresses were paid an average of $9.50 a week ($175.08/week in 2017 money)  before October 1933, when the National Recovery Act codes went into effect. Highly skilled silk dress cutters, who earned weekly wages of $35 to $50 in other parts of the country, made as little as $10 to $15 in Dallas.

The garments factories were hot, dirty, and had no fans. Workers wore old dresses they called “rags” because they would sweat so much, and they did not leave their seats as bundle after bundle of work was brought to them. Workers were promised $12 a week after completing a training period but instead, at the end of the training period, management would fire workers, rehiring them as apprentices. In addition, the management worked around a garment industry code limiting the work week to 36 hours by having employees clock out at 5 p.m., leave by the back entrance, then come back in the front door and work off the clock until 11 p.m.One of the main organizers at that time, Charlotte Duncan Graham, said management treated their workers as “less than human,” once a needle went straight through her finger, and she was not given time off for the hour and a half wait to see the doctor or compensated for the medical costs. Another worker was not allowed to use the restroom and consequently had an accident. Furious, Graham went into the restroom for half an hour, “daring the manager to fire her”. The workers were only allowed to use the restroom during their thirty-minute lunch or fifteen-minute afternoon break.

Not content with settling for that bullshit, Graham led a dozen women in requesting a charter from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) Less than four months later the ILGWU had 400 members in the Dallas area, roughly 40% of all of the garment workers in the city!

Hearing about the union activity in early February of 1935, the local capitalist blood-suckers started firing those suspected of being involved with the union. The union replied by picketing the factories where the firings took place. A walkout quickly spread to all fifteen Dallas factories owned by members of the Texas Dress Manufacturers’ Association. This would signal the beginning of the longest strike in Texas’ history.

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True to form, at first the Dallas Morning News reported condescendingly about the all-female revolt. They reported picketers “chatting good-naturedly as if they were on an outing” and patted them on the head for showing “how even-tempered Texans can stage a strike without getting excessively ‘riled up.’”

The condescending tone of the coverage by DMA soon changed to the all familiar police apologetics and striker demonization. When, for instance, a law officer tore a union songsheet from a striker’s hands and threw her to the pavement with such force that she was hospitalized with a hip injury, DMN excused his actions, explaining that the police mistook the songsheet for a court-ordered injunction.

The patience of the union ladies soon wore out and on August 7th, 1935 they started beating up cops, stripping and spanking scabs and breaking squad car windshields.

a920faa7a487e8ac11b05fd57fdebccb   November of 1935, the union voted to return to work with their demands not being met in all of the factories. However some gains were won by the ILGWU including a 35 hour work week and code wages, holding the industry to minimum national standards at the time.

We admire the tenacity of the strike and continue to fight for a world free from the exploitation of capitalists and the patriarchy. Ladies of the Dallas ILGWU, we salute you!

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To delve more into this story check out Bartee Haile’s article and the Texas State Historical Association’s article.

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