The 1919 Cigar Workers Strike

It was unclear how much hostility strike leaders held towards union leaders who were willing to collaborate with the CMIU. The CMIU leaders were themselves no strangers to militant unionism.[11]  CMIU organizers had a vague sense of the insurgent leadership of the strike but they were still at a loss in explaining how the Council and radicalized leaders of the Hispanic and "Latin" groups could have successfully led such a long walkout.[12] Gompers, the national Vice-President of the CMIU, finally endorsed the strike in September, causing a protracted conflict within the organization.The crisis within the CMIU was so extreme that in 1920 Gompers’ old local (141) rejected electing him as a delegate to the national convention, deeming him too conservative.[13]

Employers throughout the strike were adamant about not yielding,[14] and monitored the spirit and commitment of the workers, noting in early-August (perhaps as propaganda rather than journalism) the “little harmony in the ranks of the 15,000 cigarmakers who are now on strike.”[15] Trade journal reps even visited the strike headquarters, and came out convinced that the strike leaders were steadfast but most workers were anxious for a compromise.  Well before the strike ended employers were discussing a renewed commitment to mechanizing the industry as a response to ”strikes and unreasonable demands.”[16]

In Mid-August, workers in Tampa ended their strike, settling for a 15% increase. New York, by contrast, held out through September.  Meetings continued at the Astoria hotel as small factories started making their own agreements, for example accepting pay raises but not shop committees.  In mid-September, twelve weeks into the strike, workers, exhausted from weeks of living without an steady income, voted to end the strike on the 20th with the acceptance of minimal concessions. But plant closings and hold outs kept many shops closed through October as “the wild-eyed element of the strikers controlled, and by rough-neck tactics.” Most factories opened in October with the 15% increase that had been accepted in Tampa. The goals of greater shop control had been adamantly and successfully rejected by the owners. By November, most shops were at capacity, fulfilling pent-up demand for cigars, especially the high-quality lines that the Hispanic cigar makers were so good at making.[17]

Employers thought there had been “concessions on both sides.” American Cigar, General Cigar, Benito Rovira Co., Central Cigar, Merriam and co, Schwarz and co, Davis, Tunis, Sachs and Uron opened in sequence in the days after the settlement.  In many plants, agreements were made by workers themselves without Council agents or union committees. The strike, essentially, had been lost, but not without many lessons for both the CMIU and the radical wing that had organized the strike.


Many workers followed the shops as owners had already begun moving production outside Manhattan, shifting especially the cheaper cigar lines to Pennsylvania.[18]  “Killing New York's Industry” was the Tobacco Journal headline that described the immediate emigration of workers and factories from the city as the beginning of the end for the industry.[19]  The strike had merely accelerated a trend that was already in place as factory owners moved their shops and replaced male workers with women-operated machines.  This trend led to the decline of CMIU membership in New York from the prosperity of the WWI years of 10,000 to 4,000. In 1924, only 25% of cigar workers were in the CMIU, with membership down to 2403 (of 9639).[20]

The CMIU worked to coordinate the final meeting and a vote accepted in the end by 6 to 1 of strikers. In retrospect, CMIU leaders thought they could have done better by using the initial impact of the strike to settle for better wages earlier, blaming strike leaders for rejecting better offers than what they settled for in the end.  After the strike, the CMIU declared a period of reconstruction that would last the entire decade. One organizer’s analysis of the strike placed him back at the starting point of CMIU tactics: “The experience gained in this strike should influence the makers in or out of the union toward temperate action. When once Collective Bargaining is introduced, rough tactics should not be permitted. Wild strikes only lead to want and suffering; a general benefit has never been produced through strikes of that character.”[21] 

Despite its continued importance of remaining cigar shops to a few thousand Puerto Rican and other Latino workers in New York, the CMIU was almost dead by 1931.  A national membership of 40k had been reduced to 15k in 1933 and would weaken further by the 1940s.

Continue to Cigar Worker Organizing, 1920s

[11] They supported an eight-month strike of thousands in Tampa and spent 900,000 in union funds to support it, so they were no strangers to militant unionism, Cigar Workers Official Journal, 15 December 1920.

[12] Campbell. Report of Organizer, Cigar Workers Official Journal, 15 November 1919.

[13] The New York Times, 27 January 1920.

[14] Tobacco Journal, 16 August 1919.

[15] Tobacco Journal, 2 Agust 1919.

[16] Tobacco Journal, 5 July 1919. 

[17] Tobacco Journal, 25 October 1919; 20 September 1919; 13 September 1919, 6 September 1919.

[18] Tobacco Journal, 4 October 1919.

[19] Tobacco Journal 11 October 1919.

[20] Killough, Lucy Winsor b. The Tobacco Products Industry in New York and Its Environs; Present Trends and Probable Future Developments.New York: Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs, 1924,  27-28.

[21] Campbell. report of organizer, Cigar Workers Official Journal, 15 November 1919.