Puerto Ricans and Labor Organizing during the 1930s

In 1934, various leftist factions allied and expelled the mobsters from Local 302 and took over its direction. The resulting unity process of cafeteria unions developed many Puerto Rican leaders. Juan Aviles was elected to the Executive Council in 1936, and Jose Garcia also worked as representative of the Local’s Spanish Workers Club in 1940.[13]  After the merger the union prepared for a general strike of food workers and held mass meetings of 600 led by the cafeteria workers local (FWIU). An organizing drive had gained 800 new members shared among all collaborating food unions.  By November 1934 a large strike was called by Local 302 and with Local 110 of FWIU a joint strike committee was established. The AFL ordered Local 302 to end the strike, but Local 302 workers refused the order, holding out for the original demands of $35/week for countermen. By the end of 1936, the FPWIL merger with the AFL cafeteria locals was complete. Local 110 merged with Local 302, and Juan Aviles got elected to the Executive Committee of the local. They then affiliated with the CIO.

At the Horn and Hardart cafeterias, a company union provided minimal benefits to its 1000 workers, some of which had improved since the NRA. But wages were low, and black and female workers received even lower wages. When pressed with the threat of union organizing the company raised wages 5%. Another strike led by Local 302 at Horn and Hardart failed.[14] A strike at another cafeteria chain, Bickfords, lasted weeks but gave hope to Horn and Hardart workers. Local 302 efforts continued with another major organizing campaign in 1939.[15] Puerto Ricans and other Spanish speaking workers had been central to the organizing drive in these cafeterias including Childs. Local 42 leaders recalled "es para mi una felicidad poder expresar mi apreciacion profunda que siento por los compañeros hispanos de la local 42….Fueron ellos los que sentaros los nucleos en los diferentes establacimientos "Childs" sobre los cuales crecio y se desarollo la local.”[16]The prominent role of Spanish speakers led to having two Puerto Ricans in the Local’s leadership which boasted 3200 members, 400 of which were Hispanic.

By 1940 Local 302 had grown to 10,000 members and included even more Puerto Rican workers than when it was reorganized. At Sunshine Biscuit Co. workers were fired for joining the union: John Lucero, a mechanic, Bartolo Guzman, a laborer, Felix an oven man, Otilio Cruz, a laborer, Eduardo Matos an oven man, Eddie Ortiz an oven man—all with 3 to 13 years of work at the plant. They received the solidarity of “hundreds of workers” who “ha[d] approached the discharged employees promising their full and wholehearted support.”[17] Eventually the workers were reinstated and wage increases won for the plant.[18] National Biscuit Company (later known as Nabisco, where dozens if not hundreds of Puerto Ricans worked since the late 1910s) was unionized in the mid-1930s. During the early years of the Depression hours had been extended and wages cut to $12/week for 10-12 hour workday. In 1935, a major succesful strike of its 3000 workers was declared.[19]

Hotel work was hard. Puerto Rican labor leader Armando Betances recalled making $15/week with no benefits during the 1930s for 48 hours work. In order to earn a decent living he worked overtime for another 10 hours a day and got only a few hours of sleep.  Even before he worked to bring the union, he organized the hotel workers to reject overtime pay unless it was a higher pay rate after a Depression pay cut, eventually forcing the hotel to pay time and a half at a rate of .45/hour in 1931. The 1934 hotel strike proved to be a critical moment in the organizing of hotels, a process that continued into the mid-1940s.  As in many other industries, it was driven by a 25% drop in wages during the first years of the Depression. Cooks who started at $40 were now making $30.[20] A general strike of hotels was called in February 1934, and another in March 1936 when 2500 hotel workers in midtown joined buildings service workers, amounting to more than 7000 workers on strike.[21]

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Organizing during the 1930s Page 5

[13] “Stalinists Cry Alien at Cafeteria Local 302 Man,” Socialist Appeal, 10 August 1940.

[14] “Dance for the Benefit of the Horn and Hardart Strikers of Local 302.”1937. New York Historical Society.

[15] “An Appeal to the Public! The Cafeteria Employees Union Local 302, appeals to you for support in their efforts to organize all non-union cafeterias,”1939, New York Historical Society.

[16] Verdad, 5 December 1939. 

[17] The Food Worker, August 1934.

[18] The Food Worker, September 1934.

[19] “3,000 in NY biscuit strike,” New Militant, 19 January 1935.

[20]Herbart Solow, “The New York Hotel Strike,” The Nation, 28 February 1934; “LaGuardia Hears Hotel Strike Pleas, New York Times, 8 February 1934.

[21] “Walkout is Called at 17 More Hotels,” New York Times, 17 March 1936.