Puerto Ricans and Labor Organizing during the 1930s

For a few years, the Communist Party had led and supported a parallel union movement. In December 1930, Communist Party newspaper Vida Obrera called on Hispanics to join a city-wide rally at the Star Casino in Harlem to launch a general strike of garment workers.[15] The following year, in November, a mass meeting of garment workers was planned in Harlem by the Comite de Frente Unico de los Trabajadores de la Aguja, an effort by the Communist Party to organize its own garment unions.[16] Like all TUUL unions, the CP’s Needle Trades Industrial Union (of which the Dressmakers League was part), decided to merge with ILGWU Local 22 in 1934.[17]

The ILGWU did not establish Spanish-speaking locals (like the Yiddish and Italian locals created earlier in the 20th Century) but supported the organization of a Spanish-speaking section, which had offices and mass membership meetings in East Harlem. Saby Nehama, a Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jew was named organizer of Local 22’s Spanish speaking section in 1934.[18] Regular membership meetings of the Spanish section brought hundreds of women from the neighborhood to the Park Palace on 110th St and Fifth Ave. The regular meetings of the Spanish section lasted at least a couple of hours. One 1937 meeting in East Harlem brought Local 22 President Zimmerman, Antonini (leader of the ILGWU Italian Local) and Spain’s Ambassador in a rally against fascism that funds for the Spanish Red Cross during the Spanish Civil War.[19]

Local 22 had a strong educational program and a tradition of multicultural socibility and multilingual practices. Leaders designed programs that would help recruit workers of different ethnicities and immigrant origins when the union began to expand again in 1933. From the early 1930s, the union’s educational department offered English classes, social and cultural events that appealed to the Puerto Rican workers. The Local's Spanish language department also organized its own events which brought many non-Hispanic workers as well. In 1939, a dance at Audubon Hall in Harlem had sold nearly 2000 tickets.[20] As early as 1933, the Spanish section also ran a local Centro Educacional Espanol de los Dressmakers.[21] With an active educational division organized around the need for radical solidarity of a membership that included immigrants and US-born of different races, ethnicities, languages and religions, Local 22 developed a strong ethic of unity and solidarity.

The culture of inclusion and solidarity within ILGWU locals had limits. As noted by Herberg "prejudice is regarded as a high crime in the union ethic, and no one will confess to it. But it is by no means absent from the shops, as all observers testify. Some years ago, Jewish workers were prone to accuse the "Italians" of "taking away" their work. [T]oday, both Jews and Italians tend to look askance at the newcomers for the same reason…the ethnic newcomers are made the object of very much the same stereotypes ("selfish," "lazy," "irresponsible," "bad union people," etc.) that were once applied to the now dominant groups of old-timers.[22]

Through the 1940s Black and Puerto Rican workers were concentrated in shops, making the lower price-lines “due to the reluctance of members of the better-established groups to facilitate the way to advancement for newcomers of the minority groups.” Green found that “some workers considered it a ‘social disgrace’ to sponsor a Negro or Puerto Rican worker in the trade. The sponsor lost standing in the shop.”[23]

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Organizing during the 1930s Page 3


[15] Vida Obrera, 15 December 1930.

[16] Vida Obrera, 28 November 1931.

[17] To the workers of the Dressmakers Union Local 22, 20 December 1934, Zimmerman Papers, ILGWU Collection, Kheel Center, Cornell University.

[18] Katz, Daniel. All Together Different : Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism. New York: New York University Press, 2011,131-2; others;

[19] Local 22 Zimmerman 14, Zimmerman Papers, ILGWU Collection, Kheel Center, Cornell University.

[20] Local 22 Minutes, 1934-1972, ILGWU Collection, Kheel Center, Cornell University.

[21] Will Herberg to Antonio Reina, 18 December 1933, Zimmerman Papers, ILGWU Collection, Kheel Center, Cornell University.

[22] Herberg, Will. "The Old-Timers and the Newcomers." Journal of Social Issues 9, no. 1 (1953): 12-19.

[23] Green, Nancy L. Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work: A Century of Industry and Immigrants in Paris and New York. Durham N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997, 245