Puerto Ricans and Labor Organizing during the 1930s

Hand-rolled cigars continued to be produced in New York during the 1930s in a small number of factories and workshops. Organizing cigarmakers during the 1930s followed the pattern of rivalry and then convergence of radicalized unions and the CMIU, with Puerto Ricans active on both sides, until a merger bought some unity to cigar workers.  The Communist Party began organizing the Cigar Workers Unity League (Liga Obrera de la Industria Tabacalera) as part of its TUUL in 1931 and had already led strikes in some shops.[1]  The TUUL had been making inroads with Spanish speakers throughout the US, including Tampa. One letter-writer called on the “torcedores de Nueva York” to join the TUUL: “acordas que ya se os hace difícil sostener vuestro hogar con el salario que ganais?”  The CMIU criticized CP efforts to bring people out on premature and badly planned strikes and in response the Liga Obrera (CWUL) was opposed to efforts by the AFL to reunite cigar workers into one union. Vehement articles and letters in Vida Obrera rallied against this effort, led by Jorge Gautier who called AFL and CMIU leaders “socialista amarillo.”[2]  The Liga Obrera (CWUL) expanded its efforts to recruit Puerto Rican and other Spanish-speaking cigar workers.  Weekly meetings of the Spanish speaking organization committee tried to convince them to rejoin the union while organizing a fall/winter drive in collaboration with Spanish speaking Local 389.[3]  The organizing drive was so successful that the League held a “monster meeting” of 2000 cigar workers at the end of 1933.  A few months later, the NRA boosted its organizing efforts. It reported that 400 new members were recruited, and new shops organized.

As with other TUUL unions, the League announced in 1935 that it would merge with the CMIU, “an added force of militant workers.” Puerto Ricans Armando Ramirez and Gloria Gonzalez continued to be representatives for the locals to the newly formed CIO council.[4 ]Ramirez led Local 144 with about 1000 members, a nearly 90% decline since the membership levels of the mid-1920s.[5] The merger was accompanied by an aggressive wave of cigar plant strikes. Workers adopted the sit-down and sit-in tactics of some of the larger CIO strikes. At the Anton Bock plant “130 workers of seven nationalities lived together under same roof for 149 days” during a sit-down occupation.[6] Ramirez reported that the union won a 25% raise and the recognition of the union, boosting efforts to organize other shops.[7]

Another important union that came out of this period was the National Maritime Union, founded in May 1937, affiliated with the CIO. Within months of its founding, the Communist-led NMU had 50,000 members. Hundreds of Puerto Ricans in New York became members and the union played an important role in the efforts of progressive Puerto Rican leaders like Jesus Colon and Bernardo Vega to do political work in the community. Strongly committed to anti-discrimination policies at work, the union also developed a local in Puerto Rico and the international office supported Puerto Rican independence and dock workers strikes in Puerto Rico.[8] In 1930 there had been 1,310 Puerto Rico born New Yorkers working as merchant seamen. By the late 1930s, the NMU had formed a “Club Hispano Americano” which met regularly and operated more like a civil rights organization focused on the Puerto Rican community.[9] Puerto Rican membership in the NMU continued to expand during World War II. During the war years, many Merchant Marine men were killed by German U-boat attacks in the Atlantic, with nearly 7,000 workers lost, many of them Puerto Ricans. The world of the Puerto Rican Merchant Marine men was so important that Nicholasa Mohr, in her book Nilda (1973), created a character whose father was a radicalized merchant marine.

Food workers were another major center of organizing that connected Puerto Rican workers to the city's growing union movement. The Communist Party was involved in organizing cafeteria workers as soon as the Depression hit. Initially, they organized a parallel organization, the Food Workers Industrial Union (FWIU) affiliated with the TUUL and as a competitor to mobster run AFL Local 302. Vida Obrera reported that the Trade Unity League’s Food Workers Industrial Union organized a demonstration of 1500 workers at Zelgreen’s cafeterias, which included large numbers of Spanish speakers (with flyers in Spanish: “en lucha contra Zelgreen”). For the FWIU, led by Communist Party members Obermeier and Sam Kramberg, the strategy of organizing cafeteria worker in Manhattan’s garment center relied on the possibilities of support by other nearby unionized workers, especially garment workers.[10] They faced a corrupt Local 302 leadership run by mobsters. A FWIU convention held in November 1931 declared plans to expand organizing efforts to cracker shops, candy factories, meat warehouses and cigar shops, where many Hispanics worked together with Greek, Japanese, Russian and Italian immigrants.[11]  In a letter to Vida Obrera in 1930, A Spanish speaking worker signed “un esclavo de Childs” described the work in a restaurant chain where five workers did the work of ten, “un verdadero infierno para los trabajadores…un trabajo de bestias.”[12]

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Organizing during the 1930s Page 4

[1] Cigar Makers Official Journal, May 1931; Vida Obrera, 20 October 1930.

[2] Vida Obrera, 9 February 1931

[3] Vida Obrera, 2 March 1931.

[4] NYC central labor council wag 049; Juan Rovira, Secretary, to Jack Melhado, Secretary, 4 October 1935, Local 144 Records, 1926-1969 Series 2, Reel 18, AFL-CIO Archive, University of Maryland Special Collections.

[5] The New York Times, 26 June 1937.

[6] Spanish Book, Folder 9, Roll 269, Records of the New York Works Progress Administration, New York City Municipal Archive.

[7] Armando Ramirez to Van Horn, 12 April 1937, AFL-CIO Archive, University of Maryland Special Collections; The New York Times, 15 April 1937; The New York Times, 19 August 1937; The New York Times, 1937; The New York Times, 25 August 1937.

[8] Valdés, Dennis Nodín. Organized Agriculture and the Labor Movement before the UFW: Puerto Rico, Hawai'i, California. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011, 62.

[9] Joaquin colon notes; etc

[10] Richman, Shaun. "Ideology Vs. “Rule or Ruin” Politics in the Downfall of the Communists in the Nyc Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union, 1934–1952." American Communist History 11, no. 3 (2012/12/01 2012): 243-64, 246. 

[11] Vida Obrera, 14 November 1931, The New York Times, 25 November 1930.

[12] Vida Obrera, 8 September 1930.