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Paddy Whalen & the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade

4 Feb
Baltimore Union Leader Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen: 1938 ca.

Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen

By Daniel Hardin

On January 17, 1937, hundreds of striking seamen hiked down U.S. Route 1 from Baltimore, Maryland to Washington, D.C. on what became known as the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade.

The insurgents within the International Seamen’s Union (ISU) were on the ropes and desperate action was needed to save their rank-and-file caucus.

The strike began in early November in sympathy with West Coast waterfront workers. It was led by a rank-and-file committee within the ISU that challenged the legitimacy of the ISU itself.

However, by Christmas 1936 ships were leaving Baltimore harbor with full crews, and on January 14 other waterfront unions called off their strikes and ordered their members to return to work.

Only one person could have rallied the Baltimore strikers after two months of privation and the desertion of other waterfront unions. That was Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen.

Paddy Whalen

Whalen was born in 1884 and followed his father into the locomotive engineers’ union. Whalen apparently had conflicts with the railroad companies and began a wandering period that ended with him finding work in the engine rooms of merchant ships.

Patrick B. Whalen Mug Shot: 1937 ca.

Undated mug shot of Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen.

Whalen sailed out of New York on one of the merchant ships in the early 1930s, and Charles Rubin, a communist seaman, shipped out with him. According to The Log of Rubin the Sailor, Rubin was fascinated by Whalen’s knowledge of radical labor groups like the Knights of Labor, the Molly McGuires and the Wobblies.

Rubin recruited Whalen into the militant, communist-aligned Marine Workers Industrial Union (MWIU) and later into the Communist Party (CP) itself. Whalen rose quickly as a leader among the seafarers. When the CP broke up the MWIU and sent its activists to work within the International Seamen’s Union, Whalen became a leader in the rank-and-file caucus.

The anti-communist Bella Dodd described Whalen in her book School of Darkness:

Paddy Whalen best represented the picturesque elements among the Communists of that era. He was a little Irishman, the mayor of Hooversville as they named this town of shanties over on the Jersey flats. He had piercing black eyes. He drank too much and ate too little. In his way, he was dedicated to the labor movement, having once been an IWW…

Paddy Whalen came from the Middle West. Once a Catholic, he argued doctrine with priests yet begged help for strikers from men of all faiths. As mayor of a pathetic heap of boxes and tins, he wore with great dignity a hand-me-down black derby and an overcoat which reached his heels.

In late 1934 or early 1935 he moved to Baltimore and quickly became the head of the rank and file caucus within the ISU. Duke Avnet, a left-wing Baltimore labor lawyer, remembered Whalen:

He ran sentences together. He mispronounced words; he committed malapropism. He cussed profusely. His grammar was a classic of mistakes. But his thinking was clear; and he knew the seamen and their problems.

The Strike

The strike on the East Coast began in early November and was briefly supported by nearly the entire waterfront.

Striking Seamen Register for March on DC: 1937

Baltimore ISU headquarters during 1936-7 strike.

When the impeccably dressed Joseph McCurdy, president of the Baltimore Federation of Labor, sided with the ship owners in seeking an injunction, Whalen spoke to a rally and “denounced labor leaders who had ‘ritzy’ lifestyles and insisted on wearing ‘clean shirts,’” according to Vernon Pederson’s The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57,

Whalen told the crowd, “I have been involved in strikes for years and I have slept in flophouses, under viaducts and in jails—with my comrades. We have no money, and to win this strike every man must expect to suffer the hardships of his fellows.”

At a crucial point in the strike, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) local unions briefly joined in. Thousands of striking workers chased ILA President Joe Ryan back to his car when he tried to speak against the strike.

But, in the days that followed, ILA locals met separately and Ryan’s supporters were able to sway the workers to vote against officially joining the strike.

As the strike crumbled in early 1937, Whalen sought to save the insurgency from an outright defeat and preserve the Baltimore section of the organization that he led.

 Fink Books

The opportunity came as Congress was considering ship owners’ legislation that would establish a single discharge book to be filled out by each ship captain after each voyage.

Baltimore Soviet Marches on Washington: 1934

“Baltimore Soviet” marches on D.C. in 1934

Up to this point, individual discharge papers from each tour had been issued by the ship captains. Union seamen viewed the proposed single discharge book as an attempt by ship owners to blacklist them since one captain who didn’t like a maritime worker could smear them on a single discharge book. The legislation was called the Copeland Safety at Sea Act.

Also pending was a National Labor Relations Board decision on whether the rank and file caucus could challenge the ISU during federally supervised elections to represent the seamen.

It’s not clear who came up with the idea for a march on Washington but it may have been Al Lannon, a national leader of the rank-and-file committee. Lannon had previously led the Baltimore MWIU in the early 1930s and had organized a small march on Washington in 1934 demanding continued disbursement of federal relief funds through the union instead of outside organizations that were feathering their own nests.

As a result of agitation by the MWIU the disbursement of funds through the so-called “Baltimore Soviet,” continued for another year. The “Soviet” provided beds, food, barbers and other services for waterfront workers during the toughest early years of the Great Depression.

 The Midnight March

Whether it was Whalen’s or Lannon’s thoughts that led to the march, Whalen took it up with enthusiasm and the idea captured the imagination of seamen up and down the ports on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Seamen March in Rain in D.C. Protest #2: 1937

The “Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade.”

Elizabeth Fee wrote in The Baltimore Book:

Calling it the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade, Whalen led hundreds of seamen and supporters from other unions along U.S. Route 1 through a day and night of rain and slush to the nation’s capital.

There they were joined by several thousand more demonstrators, and pickets were thrown around the Department of Commerce as well as the Capitol. The seamen visited all the principal department heads in government. One delegation even went to President Franklin Roosevelt in the White House.

With the momentum of the march, Baltimore’s striking seamen voted to end the 87-day strike, obtaining wage increases for the sailors, according to Jo Ann Argersinger in the Maryland Historical Magazine.

Shortly afterward the NLRB ruled in favor of the caucus meeting the definition of a union under federal law. The rank-and-file committee in turn established itself as the National Maritime Union (NMU) and quickly challenged the ISU, winning representation in 56 of 67 companies where elections were held.

As a result of the new power on the waterfront, the Copeland Safety at Sea Act was amended to permit either single discharge papers or new books to be utilized—effectively preventing ship owners from blacklisting union supporters.

A sweeping victory had been snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Seamen’s Solidarity

Seamen Arrested in DC Protesting Nazi Regime: 1936

Striking seamen protesting the Nazi regime are arrested outside German embassy in 1936.

The camaraderie of the sailors at sea proved a great recipe for union members in port.

During the strike, the rank-and-file committee adopted a resolution to “treat all seamen as brothers and on an equality” basis regardless of race or color according to Argersinger. A cook of Chinese descent, who was barred by West Coast waterfront unions from membership, was taken in by Whalen and his union.

Argersinger wrote that Whalen set up a “court of justice” with fines and punishments for crimes ranging from drunkenness to scabbing—the most serious offense. The “Baltimore Soviet” services were replicated with rooms, food service and organized exercise. Differing ethnic groups were encouraged to play instruments and sing their songs for all.

Elisabeth Gilman, a social democrat from Baltimore, said the strike was “the most orderly and best conducted I have ever seen.”

 Fight for Integrated Crews

Striking Seamen Stage Guerilla Theater: 1937 (2)

The Baltimore NMU fought for integration.

When the NMU was officially formed in 1938, its constitution prohibited discrimination. Andor Skotnes in New Deal for All? quotes the lawyer Avnet relating an incident where Whalen put teeth into this provision:

The Captain of the vessel phoned and complained that some of the crew members were not satisfactory. There were three Negro members who had been assigned to the deck and engine departments. Previously Negroes had been segregated on the ships to the steward’s department only.

Pat [Whalen] held his ground and refused to withdraw these three crew members. Shortly afterward, the crew itself arrived at the union hall and [the white crew members] announced that they would not sail with Negroes.

Whalen called a general membership meeting for that night to try the white crewmembers for undemocratic conduct. During this meeting several seamen of color spoke against the white crew’s actions, and a number of whites spoke in favor of it. Whalen took the floor and harangued the membership on how racism created a reservoir of strikebreakers and how the enemy ISU had always stood for Jim Crow.

He spoke of trade union democracy where all were equal regardless of race, color or creed, and shook his head and vowed sadly that the new union would be better dead aborning than to follow in the old ways…The men understood him and the membership voted the crew either sail with Negro members or that they should turn in their union books.

Some books were thrown on the table. But the ship sailed with a mixed crew and this policy has since largely prevailed in the port of Baltimore.

 The Broader Fight

Striking Maritime Workers Protest Discharge Papers: 1937

Women were also members of the NMU: Elsa Landstrom, a striker at the Midnight March.

Elizabeth Fee cited a George Meyers account of how Whalen also fought for integration on the Baltimore waterfront:

The National Maritime Union always worked integrated crews, and we’d go into a waterfront bar and order up a bottle. The bartenders would serve the white seamen and refuse to serve the others because, they said, it was against the law.

So Paddy’s guys would pick the bottle up and throw it into the mirror…and that was the way the waterfront was integrated. After that, anyone could be served with no problem.

Whalen didn’t confine the fight against segregation to the waterfront. In one of the largest community based campaigns in the pre-World-War-II period, the CIO sent representatives into community meetings to raise its own demands such as housing for black workers at Bethlehem Steel and other mills, factories and shipyards.

Andor Skotnes in New Deal for All? writes:

On one occasion in 1939, Patrick Whalen, head of the Baltimore Industrial Union Council, silenced a hostile white crowd at a public meeting with a passionate defense of public housing for all. The nature of the coalition emerging in the new housing movement is evident in the committee formed in northwestern Baltimore, which included representatives from the NAACP, the NNC, BUL, the CIO and social liberal groupings. Both Lillie Jackson of the NAACP and Albert Blumberg of the Communist Party were among its leaders.

 Whalen as Port Agent

Whalen was the port agent (principal union representative) for NMU in Baltimore from 1937-42 and was known for his brash and confrontational style.

Seamen Return to DC Protesting Scab Certificates: 1939

Baltimore NMU banner at 1939 march on D.C.

In a 1987 interview for the Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project, African American seaman Neville Sutherland recalled Whalen having a telephone conversation with Governor Harry Nice:

He wanted the governor to give something, and the governor said it can’t be done…You get him on the goddamn phone, this is Patrick Beeway Dubiss [Whalen]. So, when he got out,he told him what he wanted, and the governor said to the guy it can’t be done. He [Whalen] says, Oh, it’s gonna be done, don’t tell me what can’t be done. He [Whalen] said you full of shit, he says…that’s the way he talked [and] he [Whalen] got it.

Whalen would lead his seamen to return to Washington, D.C. at least two more times in 1938 and 1939 to demand strict procedures for issuing sailors’ certificates. As the NMU conducted strikes against particular shipping lines, the ISU or ship owners would try to bring strikebreakers aboard. The protests at the Commerce Department demanded the department halt what the NMU said was a practice of issuing certificates to unqualified scabs while denying qualified union supporters the certificates.

Maritime Union Leader Held on Gun Charges: 1938

Whalen arrested in New Jersey on weapons charges.

During this period, Whalen had his share of enemies. While en route to a meeting of the national union in New York City, Hudson County police stopped the vehicle he was riding in and arrested him and four others for carrying “concealed and dangerous weapons.”

Questions immediately arose about how the police came to know that Whalen was riding in this particular vehicle that held weapons. Speculation turned to Joseph Curran, the NMU president, who was allegedly jealous of other leaders in the union. Neville Sutherland ventured:

Actually, Colonel [Curran] was afraid of Patrick Whalen, see. And Colonel [Curran] was a big rat too, [Inaudible word(s)] Patrick leave here. Patrick Whalen was a very small man, a very, very, very, small man, see; must’ve weighed about 105 pounds, 110 pounds.

And he’d leave from here, and he knew that Patrick Whalen had a gun in the car, see. That Patrick Whalen didn’t take shit from nobody and he called the Jersey police up, and notified them that he was coming and he had it and when he hit the Jersey line, they pulled him up and they got him in the car there.

Charges were later dropped and the incident, if anything, boosted Whalen’s standing among the workers.

Whalen as a Communist

Whalen made no secret of his communist beliefs. The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote in What is to be Done? that the communist’s “…ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears…”

Alice Neel Portrait of Paddy Whalen: 1935

Alice Neel portrait of Paddy Whalen holding a copy of the Daily Worker.

Paddy Whalen seemed to somehow embody both. The artist Alice Neel, who painted Whalen in 1935 with a copy of the Communist Party’s Daily Worker and two clenched fists, said of Whalen, “Patty Whalen was the organizer on the waterfront…He was just an ordinary Irishman except for one thing: He was absolutely convinced of communism, and he could convince other longshoremen…”

Whalen hated fascism and during the 1936-7 strike, Whalen organized 50 seamen to travel to Washington, D.C. to picket the German embassy in support of seaman Lawrence Simpson who was charged by the Nazis with subversion.

While drumming up support for the 1936-37 strike, Whalen also went on a recruiting sortie for the Maryland Communist Party to Cumberland, Md. where he met and recruited labor leader George Meyers. Meyers led the unionization of the Celanese Mills, where 10,000 workers were employed. Meyers later became head of the Maryland Industrial Union Council, the state arm of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Meyers also went on to head the Md.-D.C. Communist Party, was jailed for three years during the McCarthy era, and later headed the CP’s National Labor Commission, demonstrating Whalen’s effectiveness in winning others to his ideas.

 Killed by Nazi Submarine

SS Illinois  - Ship Where Whalen was Killed: 1942

S.S. Illinois

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the Nazi regime in Germany declared war on the U.S. a few days later, the Communist Party asked its members to enlist in the war effort. Despite his exemption from the draft as union port agent, Whalen went back to sea in the merchant marine, working in the engine room of the S.S. Illinois.

On June 2, 1942, as the Illinois sailed on a return voyage along the Southern Atlantic route and was about 450 miles southeast of Bermuda, Nazi submarine U-159 sent two torpedoes into its engine room. Whalen died instantly and 31 others also perished. The ship went down with 8,000 tons of manganese ore aboard. Whalen’s body, like those of most seamen on sunken ships, was never recovered. Six survivors were picked up out of the water six days later.

U-159 Shortly Before Sinking: 1943

U-159 shortly before sinking by a VP 32 Mariner.

The workers of Baltimore saw their revenge. On July 28, 1943 a PBM Mariner dropped bombs onto U-159 and sent the Nazi submarine to the bottom of the sea.

A liberty ship was launched from Brunswick, Ga. bearing the name Patrick B. Whalen in March 1945 in his memory and a small service held in Baltimore the same day. However during the Cold War the name of the S.S. Patrick B. Whalen was changed and it was eventually scrapped in Taiwan in 1967.


Writer’s Notes:

Joseph Curran took complete control of the union at a 1947 convention where the left wing of the union lost by a single vote—a casualty of the anti-communist fever orchestrated by Democratic President Harry S. Truman and a Republican Congress. Soon after, 10 years of union democracy was gone and Curran came to symbolize the worst aspects of trade unionism, building a palatial union headquarters in New York. The NMU merged with the rival ISU in 1988.

Striking Seamen Leaders to Meet Commerce Secretary: 1937

Paddy Whalen (1st row, left) and Joseph Curran (1st row holding paper) during 1936-37 strike.

The cities of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. are only 30 miles apart, but they might as well be 3,000. Only rarely is there cultural spillover between the two. However Whalen’s position in the Maryland Industrial Council of the CIO and his unflinching fight against discrimination inspired the same fight in Washington, D.C. as activists sought to integrate defense industries and the Capital Transit Company.

Whalen is long forgotten, except among a few scholars. Perhaps when someone views the bar scenes in Season 2 of The Wire, they’ll think of Paddy Whalen and the method he used to integrate the waterfront bars of Baltimore.

Sources for this post include the Washington Star, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Afro-American, The Baltimore Sun, The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57, The Baltimore Book, The Maryland Historical Magazine, Pictures of People: Alice Neel’s Portrait Gallery, School of Darkness, A New Deal for All?, The Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project, among others.

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The Washington Post Strike at the Crossroads, December 1975

12 Dec

by Craig Simpson

Post Pressmen & Supporters Picket George’s Store

Post Busts Pressmen's Union 1975 # 3

A mass picket line by striking pressmen and supporters in front of a George’s appliance store in Greenbelt, Maryland in December 1975. Photo by Reading/Simpson, non-commercial use permitted.

The International Printing and Graphic Communications Union Local 6, the pressmen’s union, was engaged in a bitterly fought strike at the Washington Post that reached a turning point in December 1975.

When the strike first began on October 1, a number of advertisers switched to the rival Washington Star as the Post struggled to publish a credible newspaper. It appeared for a time that the Star might supplant the Post, unless the strike was settled.

But the management gradually produced more and more pages per day without union workers, and advertisers began switching back to the Post. Picket lines were set up at stores around the metropolitan Washington area at George’s, a local discount appliance store, and K-Mart in December 1975, but failed to dissuade the advertisers from returning to the Post.

Origins of the Strike: The 1973 Printers’ Dispute

Post Printers Lockout

Printers’ union members picket the Post in November 1973 after union member Michael Padilla was fired for engaging in a slowdown at the paper. When printers stopped work, the Post evicted them from the building after calling US Marshals. Photo by Michael Dresser, some rights reserved.

The tipping point in labor relations at the Post came during a November 1973 dispute with International Typographical Union Local 101, the printers’ union.

The Post was a profitable newspaper, but its margins were slipping compared to its other holdings. New management at the paper made the determination that profits could be increased by squeezing more out of fewer workers.

The Post prepared for a confrontation with its unions and trained non-union personnel at an anti-union facility in Oklahoma to produce the newspaper in the event of a strike by one or more of its unions. It also opened its own training facility in Northern Virginia where non-union staff were trained on the relatively new “cold” type press production that needed fewer workers.

The printers were the largest union at the Post and prepared the molten lead “hot” type for printing. They stood in the way of the Post’s drive to cut costs and increase profits.

The printers began engaging in a work slowdown to pressure management to back off its aggressive bargaining posture as they approached the expiration of their labor contract. The management retaliated by firing one printer, Michael Padilla, for engaging in the slowdown. The union responded with a sit-down strike and the Post evicted them from the building after calling US Marshals.

The Post management then prepared an edition of the paper with non-union staff and prepared to run the presses themselves.  Members of the pressmen’s union were made aware of the Post’s plans by other union members in the building and entered the Post’s facilities saying that they were the only ones entitled to run the presses and they intended to do so.

However, they quickly staged their own sit-down strike and some minor damage was done to a few presses. They halted the paper from publishing and took the position they would not work until all other unions returned.  The Post negotiated a quick settlement with the printers and reinstated Padilla.  All the unions returned to work with nothing said about the minor damage. The pressmen were heroes to other craft union members.

But to the Post management, including publisher Katherine Graham, they had a bulls-eye painted on them and over the next two years a number of smaller skirmishes were fought leading up to the expiration of the pressmen’s labor contract.

Pressmen’s Strike Begins October 1, 1975

Post Busts Pressmen's Union 1975 # 1

Pressmen outside the Washington Post building in the early morning hours of October 1, 1975. Photo: Pete Schmick, Courtesy DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post, All Rights Reserved.

The regular pressmen numbered about 200, of whom only about 100 were long term employees. Most of the others migrated to Washington from out-of-town papers for higher wages or because their local unions had been broken during strikes at other newspapers.

The pressmen were viewed as the strongest union at the Post and set the pace for the other nine unions.  Their contract was due to expire September 30, 1975, but the pressmen didn’t plan to strike.  Instead they planned to continue to negotiate while honoring the picket lines of the smaller machinist union at the newspaper whose contract expired at the same time.

However, the machinists were forced to back off of a strike at the last-minute when the Post invoked a binding arbitration clause in the machinists’ contract.

The pressmen’s union leadership decided not to call a strike right away, but a relatively small, organized group of pressmen began disabling the presses at about 4 am and detained and injured a manager. A small fire was set in the printing press room. The strike was on when workers left the building and set up a picket line.  The union leadership then passed out strike signs that had been previously printed in the event of a work stoppage.

The Post was unable to publish for a day, but cobbled together non-union offset print shops around the region to print a reduced version of the paper on the second day and began returning their own presses to running order. They flew the paper produced at the Post by helicopter to printing facilities located within 200 miles of Washington. Later they printed the Sunday and other supplement material as far away as Miami and had it trucked to Washington, DC.

The other unions at the Post either went on strike or respected the picket lines of the pressmen. The exception was the Newspaper Guild, which twice held fierce debates over supporting the strike. Reacting to reports of physical abuse of some members who crossed the picket lines and the damaged presses, they overrode their leadership and voted to continue working on two different occasions, although a minority of Guild members did honor picket lines.

The striking unions called for a boycott of the Post that was supported by local organized labor, but its effects were limited. The Post’s newspaper sales dropped by about 35,000 and advertising fell from about 70% of the newspaper market to about 65%–significant, but not crippling. Some major advertisers switched to the Star and others advertised more heavily in the rival paper.

The Post’s public relations successfully exploited a highly exaggerated version of the pressroom damage (The Post filed suit for $25 million, but the actual damage figure did not exceed $270,000) as an attack on the “free press.” Later the Post demonstrated its power when a grand jury was convened to investigate strike activities, further demonizing the workers.

As advertisers began to return and revenue began to rebound by late November, the Post made a final offer to the pressmen’s union, a formality before hiring permanent replacements.  The offer would have essentially torn up the expired pressmen’s contract, while providing for some nominal pay raises.  The offer was rejected by a vote of the union members and the Post began advertising for permanent replacements for the pressmen in December.

The Post also isolated the pressmen’s union from much of the rest of the city by repeatedly pointing out the lack of any significant number of African American or women press operators in a city that was nicknamed “Chocolate City” and had more women than men.

They moved to further divide the unions from the city’s working people by exploiting long-standing charges of discrimination against the craft unions and reached an agreement with the Washington Printing Specialties & Paper Products Union, whose members moved the heavy rolls of paper around the shop and performed other manual labor.

The 100 member union was predominantly African American and had been battling the mainly white craft unions over discrimination against its members before the strike and had filed suit against several–although not against the pressmen’s union. They  returned to work and joined many of the Newspaper Guild’s members  crossing the picket lines. While not essential to publishing the paper, the agreement with the paper handlers union legitimized the Post’s position and further discredited the strikers in the eyes of many African Americans.

The momentum in the battle had clearly swung toward the management.

1,000 March & Burn Katherine Graham in Effigy

K Graham Burned in Effigy 1976 # 28

Over 1,000 striking pressmen and supporters staged a march and rally on the one year anniversary of the strike on October 2, 1976 that culminated with burning Katherine Graham in effigy in front of the Post headquarters. Photo by Reading/Simpson, non-commercial use permitted.

As the strike moved into 1976, the Post was effectively producing the newspaper at its own printing plant with the permanent replacements of the pressmen and non-union pressmen imported from other areas of the country. The permanent replacements were mainly African Americans along with a few women. The diversity of the replacements was showcased by the Post.

The Post unions had a support committee that worked hard to convince the broader public to back the strike. At one point a petition was circulated among prominent local residents asking that the dispute be submitted to binding arbitration.  The Post refused arbitration. AFL-CIO president George Meany held a meeting with publisher Katherine Graham, but accounts of the meeting indicate that Meany didn’t push hard and Graham was firm that the pressmen had been permanently replaced.

With defeat staring at them, the other Post unions undertook serious negotiations with management over resolving their own issues. Individual members of the various craft unions began drifting back to work.

On February 17, 1976 the mailers’ union, who sorted and bundled the newspapers, reached an agreement with the Post. They returned to work along with the printers’ union—representing about half of the 1,400 craft union workers. The other unions and their members followed shortly thereafter.

The strike was lost at this point and the pressmen’s union was broken. They were now out on their own–along with a few members of other unions who refused to go back and a committed group of supporters.

The U.S. Attorney obtained indictments against 15 pressmen while none of those who crossed picket lines and assaulted strikers were charged.

On the first anniversary of the strike– October 2, 1976–over 1,000 pressmen and their supporters rallied at McPherson Square and marched to the Post building where they burned Katherine Graham in effigy. The march was defiant, but for the pressmen it was more like a funeral.

The pressmen continued to picket the Post through the judicial proceedings. On May 20, 1977, after plea agreements were concluded in court, fourteen pressmen were given sentences that ranged from fines for most individuals to a year in jail for one pressman. The light sentences for most pressmen vindicated their account that the initial disabling of the presses was relatively minor, but it was a hollow victory.

Local 6 was decimated by the strike and ceased to exist after the Washington Star newspaper folded in 1981. The strike was one of the biggest defeats ever suffered by organized labor in the District of Columbia.

Could the Pressmen Have Prevailed?

K Graham Burned in Effigy 1976 # 30

Helicopter at Post building one year after strike began. Management used helicopters in the early stages of the strike to ferry ready-to-print versions of the paper to offset print shops within 200 miles of Washington. Photo: Reading/Simpson, non-commercial use permitted.

Most accounts written after the strike point to the initial disabling of the presses on October 1, 1975 as sealing the pressmen’s fate, but that is an oversimplification.  Even with the Post’s account of “violence” monopolizing the media, the outcome was not certain two and half months into the strike.

Certainly the property damage was a factor in the Guild’s decision not to honor picket lines and gave the Post ammunition to use against the strike. But a significant number of Guild members would have crossed the picket lines in any event and the Post intended to publish utilizing non-union labor even if no damage had occurred.

Simply pointing to the “violence” in which one person was hurt and some relatively minor damage done to property does not take into consideration that the Post settled the 1973 dispute after similar, although not as widespread, disabling of the presses.

The larger error that the pressmen made was viewing the impending confrontation as a traditional battle fought by a group of skilled craftsmen who were necessary for production against a management that was making unprecedented demands but could be forced to back down as they had in the past. The pressmen applied the lessons they had learned from previous battles, like the printers’ dispute, and believed they could prevail by withholding their labor. The rump group that disabled the presses followed this thinking to its logical–but ultimately wrong–conclusion.

Instead, the pressmen faced a powerful enemy who had negated the crafts’ advantage in earlier labor confrontations. The pressmen failed to grasp the impact that technological improvements like cold type would have on the ability to produce the paper in the workers’ absence. They further underestimated the ability of replacements and management to print a paper, despite the printing craft unions’ experience in other cities. They believed that the “liberal” Washington Post would not openly “bust” a union. Perhaps most critically, they didn’t have a winning strategy to sway the broader public to their cause.

In such circumstances, the pressmen were unprepared to cast their battle as part of a larger struggle of working people that were then vigorously resisting similar demands. Employers during the 1970s sought to reverse hard-won work rules and increase productivity while holding down wages due to increased international competition and flattening profits. Workers in the Washington area and around the country were waging strikes, both legal and illegal, over the employers’ demands for more work with less pay in order to maintain their profit margins.

The craft unions at the Post did ultimately realize their need to wage a broader struggle after the strike began. They banded together and formed a “Post Unions United” group and organized a strike support committee–gathering support from other unions and activist groups throughout the city. They launched a campaign to boycott the Post, trying to identify their struggle with broader struggles with a “No Grapes, No Lettuce, No Post” slogan. They hit back at the Post for “union-busting.”

However, these slogans did not resonate. Some accounts after the strike simply noted that Washington was not an industrial city with strong unions.  This is not entirely accurate either.  The city is not industrial in nature, but the upswing in public employee unions in the late 1960s and early 1970s actively engaged tens of thousands of workers in and around the city. Strong established unions already existed in the hotels, grocery,  communications, transit, trucking & warehouses and in construction as well as other sectors.  And, workers were in a fighting mood, like those across the country.

The problem with the campaign message is that it did not capture the reason why the workers were striking and translate it into a just cause that other working people could embrace. The message used would not override the Post’s campaign against “violence” and defense of a “free press.”

Further, the pressmen left themselves vulnerable to be divided from a large, natural ally in the metropolitan area–African Americans who supported unions in much higher percentages than other population groups.

Of the craft unions, the pressmen weren’t the worst when it came to discrimination. They were not one of the unions sued by the paper handlers at the Post. They had taken on some African American apprentices and junior apprentices and had a few black journeymen. However, that didn’t alter the fact that they were overwhelmingly white in a city that was overwhelmingly black, and the larger public didn’t make fine distinctions among the various craft unions.

Unlike the city’s transit union leadership which helped force a desegregation of operator ranks within the union in 1955 prior to a long strike with the Capital Transit Company in order to diffuse the issue, the pressmen’s union did not fully recognize the damage that would be done to their position. And that’s without considering the good will that would have been generated by strides toward full desegregation of their ranks.

It’s easy now to look back and debate what should have been done 40 years ago to prepare for this confrontation and it should be remembered that the pressmen and the other craft unions, despite whatever weaknesses they had, waged a toe-to-toe battle against a determined foe for nearly three months before the tide turned against them.

We’ll never know if a clear message linking the Post unions’ struggles with those being waged by other working people, along with a reputation as a progressive union, would have made a difference in the outcome. But we can know that doing so would have made for a more effective boycott, reducing subscribers and thereby keeping more advertising dollars away from the Post. This in turn would have strengthened the rival Washington Star, putting increased pressure on the Post to reach an agreement.

Author’s Notes:

As a young union activist, I brought the Post craft unions’ boycott materials to my transit union meeting. Some of the officers of the union removed the material from the sign-in table and castigated me for supporting a strike of unions that had discriminated against African Americans. We argued for a while and a lot of the rank and file at the meeting listened in interest, but the damage that was done to the strike’s cause by unions that had failed to take meaningful steps to integrate their ranks cannot be overstated.

Most of the material for this article came from the Washington Star, New York Times, Washington Post, Washington City Paper and flyers produced by strike supporters.


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College.  He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


For more photos of the strike

For more photos of the one year strike anniversary march and rally

600 Black Women Stand Strong: The 1938 Crab Pickers Strike

5 Dec
A Face of the CIO Union in Crisfield, MD: 1938

Pauline Schofield with CIO button, Crisfield, MD, May 1938. Original image courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

By Craig Simpson

Working people in Crisfield, Maryland, were in desperate straits on the first of April in 1938.

The Great Depression hadn’t lifted yet, and 300 garment workers, mostly women, had been thrown out of work two weeks earlier when two factories had closed. One town official estimated that 90% of the Crisfield workforce was unemployed at that time.

Then, on top of everything else, on April 4th the town’s packing companies cut the amount paid to hundreds of crab pickers from 35 cents per gallon to 25 cents per gallon. The packers might have figured that the pickers would just be thankful to have a job.

Instead, two days later, 600 predominantly African American women crab pickers walked out on a five-week strike. They demanded that the rates be restored to 35 cents and that the packing companies recognize the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) as their union.

They defied mob intimidation and long weeks of privation, but won their strike—and a union.

Climate of Racial Fear

The town had a mixed history of race relations. It had experienced brutal racial violence, but also cooperation at times among black and white workers against the packinghouses.

Crisfield, previously named Somers Cove, had a population of about 6,000 in 1938, over one-quarter of whom were African American. The town, located near the southernmost portion of Maryland’s Eastern Shore on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, was heavily dependent on the seafood industry.  It billed itself the “Seafood Capital of the World.”

The town took its name from John W. Crisfield, one of the largest slave holders in the state during the 1860s and a pro-slavery congressman during the Civil War. He was defeated in 1863 by abolitionist John Cresswell in what is widely believed to be vote fraud conducted by federal troops in the state. Crisfield secured the financing that brought the Eastern Shore Railroad to the town in 1867 and the town’s name was changed to honor him.

Lynching occurred all too frequently on the Eastern Shore up into the 1930s. One had occurred in Crisfield 30 years before and there were several others in surrounding towns in more recent years.

In 1907, James Reed allegedly shot and killed Crisfield police chief John H. Daugherty.  Reed was captured while fleeing the town by boat. He was beaten to death and hung from a telegraph pole and his body was later buried in a marsh. Unsatisfied, white rioters dug up Reed’s body, cut it up, shot it with bullets and then threw it into a bonfire.  Following this, the mob ran through the black community pulling people from their homes and beating them.

Thirty miles away in Salisbury in 1931, Matt Williams suffered a similar barbaric death administered by a mob. Again in 1931, a gang of whites in Snow Hill, 35 miles from Crisfield, beat white International Labor Defense attorney Bernard Ades and a male and female companion when they couldn’t find their African American target Euel Lee.

Twenty miles away in Princess Anne in 1933, George Armwood was dragged from the local jail with a rope around his neck, beaten, stabbed and kicked. The mob tied him to the back of a truck and dragged him down the street to a large tree. The crowd cut off his ears, took his gold teeth, and then repeatedly dropped his lifeless body from a large limb to the ground. They then dragged Armwood’s corpse back to the courthouse in the center of town where it was hanged from a telephone pole and set on fire.

Racial Solidarity in 1931 Strike

The virulent racism that characterized some sectors of the population wasn’t the whole story in Crisfield, and 1938 was not the first year crab pickers had resisted the packinghouses’ attempts to reduce their pay.

Housing at W. T. Handy Packinghouse 2: 1940

Workers who picked crabs, shucked oysters or canned vegetables were paid little and had little. Shown is housing for permanent workers at the W. T. Handy plant in Crisfield, MD  ca 1940. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1931, the packers also reduced rates from $0.35 per gallon to $0.25 per gallon (the equivalent of seven cents to five cents per pound) of picked crabmeat.

Leroy R. Carson, who owned one of the largest packinghouses in Crisfield and also owned a packinghouse in Hampton, VA, led the move.   In what would become a recurring practice, Carson reduced rates in Hampton and used the Virginia competition as a reason to reduce rates in Crisfield.

In response, on September 8, nearly 300 crab pickers quit working and went on strike.

The strikers marched from door to door through working class neighborhoods enlisting support. Their ranks bolstered, they marched through downtown Crisfield.

In all, between 700 and 800 crabmeat pickers—of whom about 100 were white—from 22 crab-picking plants joined the strike.

They had the backing of a racially mixed group of oyster shuckers whose season was about to begin and who feared their rates would also be reduced. The U.S. Department of Labor, US Conciliation Service’s Georgia Johnson stated, “Much solidarity is reported between all workers, white and colored…”

Johnson went on to say that, “The operators are holding out, because they wish continued wage reductions through the oyster-shucking season which opens today; and that this reduction is chiefly to fix oyster shucking wages through the autumn, winter and spring seasons.”

The owner of one of the three largest seafood businesses in Crisfield, J. C. W. Tawes, was quoted as saying that “…rather than submit to the strikers’ demands he would sell out and leave Crisfield.”

Tawes demanded that Mayor William H. Bradshaw order out the police, arm the citizens or order out the militia, ostensibly to protect black women who he claimed didn’t want to strike.  He alleged they were intimidated by a mostly white, male group of oyster shuckers.

Instead, Bradshaw brokered an agreement where some packinghouses agreed to a compromise rate of 30 cents per gallon. Both the packers and the strikers were dissatisfied with Bradshaw’s deal and the packers quickly reneged and kept the rate at the 25 cent reduced level.  The strike had ended in defeat.

Labor Unrest Continues

Women Picking Crabmeat in MD: 1940 ca

Crab pickers at Milbourne Oyster Co., Crisfield, MD, 1940 ca. Image courtesy of Maryland State Archives, educational use only.

Labor unrest continued in subsequent years and there were allegations of intolerable working conditions and of the exploitation of children. Worker advocates called for crab pickers and oyster shuckers to be classified as wage workers and paid an hourly rate.

In response to federal inquiries, the packers raised the rates back to the 35 cents per gallon level.

However in February, 1934, packinghouse owner Carson told a National Recovery Act administrator that crab pickers in Crisfield were lying about conditions.  He insisted that it was not rates that were to blame for poor conditions of workers in Crisfield, but instead the federal government: “I can prove that one family there is getting $15 a week federal aid.  The wife won’t pick crabs and the husband won’t shuck oysters.”

He went on to say that the rate for crab pickers should be about 5 cents a pound and that he was opposed to an hourly rate.   He reasoned that the crab harvest was unpredictable and thus could not be subjected to an hourly wage.

In December, 1935 the packers again unilaterally reduced rates and 100 workers struck, temporarily closing all but three packinghouses that had not reduced rates.

CIO Organizing on the Shore

On Maryland’s Eastern Shore unions were scarce and organized African Americans were almost unheard of. But by 1937, the CIO was leading a movement that organized male and female, black and white workers into single industrial unions.

Union Business Cambridge Strike 1937

Black & White workers at the Phillips plant in Cambridge MD unite during 1937 strike. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The first big battle in the packing industry on the Shore occurred at the massive Phillips packing plant in Cambridge, MD, during a strike in 1937. Over 2,000 black and white workers united and waged a vigorous two-week struggle demanding wage hikes and unionization.

At one point a group of several hundred white and black strikers marched on the city jail and freed a black striker. They ultimately lost the strike and did not achieve a union independent of the company, but the effort was well publicized throughout the Eastern Shore.

The United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America, CIO that had been active in the Phillips strike began organizing in Crisfield.  In November 1937, three organizers of the cannery union were run out of Crisfield by a crowd of about 50 whites while trying to organize among oyster shuckers.

Leif Dahl, east coast organizer and national executive board member of the union, telephoned Governor Harry W. Nice and asked for protection for Michael Howard, secretary-treasurer of the Baltimore Industrial Council, and his other organizers.

Crisfield Chief of Police Willard Laird claimed no knowledge of the incident but Mayor Bradshaw said he told the organizers to “withdraw peacefully” from the town because it “was not the proper time for their efforts”, according to the Washington Post.

Dahl vowed that the organizers would return to Crisfield, and the union representatives came back to organize quietly among oyster shuckers and crab pickers. Despite the intimidation, one of the smaller crab picking houses was organized in 1937.

The Strike Begins

In 1938, pickers’ pay was back up to 35 cents per gallon. At that rate many pickers earned between $1 and $1.50 weekly, although faster pickers could make as much as $5 per week or more. Out of these earnings, workers paid 35 cents weekly for removal of the crab shells they had picked.

A reduction back to 25 cents a gallon meant many workers’ already meager earnings would be cut by as much as a third.

The packinghouse owners announced the cut April 4, with the exception of Nelson R. Coulbourn’s packinghouse that continued to pay the old rate of 35 cents per gallon.

Pickers at every packinghouse except Coulbourn’s walked out April 6 and the packinghouses shut down.

The packers may have initially thought that the women would cave after a few weeks and the houses would be open in time for crab season that was to begin May 2.

The packers may also have considered the timing of their rate reduction.  The 1931 rate reductions occurred just before the beginning of oyster season and threatened the rates of oyster shuckers.  This reduction occurred near the end of the oyster season, making the oyster shuckers’ support of a strike less of a factor.

Shiloh United Methodist Church, Crisfield: 2012

Shiloh ME Church, Crisfield, MD shown in 2012. The CIO crab pickers union held meetings in the church & the grassy area in foreground is where a union organizer’s car was overturned & burned.

Local stores were pressured to cut off credit to the strikers, but Howard organized a food committee and began raising funds and food for strikers among the CIO unions and churches in Baltimore.

The workers—mostly African American women—held meetings to keep the strike organized and cope with their lack of income at the Shiloh ME (United Methodist) Church just off Route 413 on N. Fourth St. at the entrance of the town.

As the strike began its third week, Robert W. Knadler, a field examiner for the National Labor Relations Board, arranged a meeting between the packers and Howard. The conference quickly broke up when Howard demanded a contract guaranteeing rates for a definite period.

As the strikers held firm, the packinghouses, watermen and farmers combined forces. The watermen who set the lines to catch crabs were nearly all white, and the season was about to start with the packinghouses closed. Local farmers feared the cannery union would organize agricultural workers like it was attempting in New Jersey.

Mob Terrorizes Community

A white crowd estimated at between 100 and 300 gathered near a black section of town on N. Fourth Street on April 21. The mob broke into the home of two sisters who were on the strike committee, Eleanor Coulbourne and Martina Cooper.

Afro on Crisfield Strike with Headline, Article & 3 Photos: 1938

Afro American April 30, 1938 with banner headline “Troopers Halt Crisfield Mob,” story, “600 Girls on Strike” & 3 photos of strike, including Howard’s overturned & burned auto.

Mob leaders declared they would “ruin” Cooper and Howard if they found them, according to the Afro American newspaper. They broke into at least one other house on the street, but couldn’t find Cooper, Howard or another strike leader whose name they said was Terry Fowler.

Unable to find the strike leaders or the CIO organizers, they turned to the Shiloh Church on N. Fourth St. where Howard’s auto was parked. The mob overturned Howard’s car and set fire to it in front of the church.

The Associated Press reported, “The men were said to have been incensed because the organizers had been seen often in the Negro settlement.” According to oral history in Crisfield, Howard was hidden in Upturf, another black neighborhood located on Collins Street, about a half mile north of the church.

The local strike leaders stayed at home during the day, but took refuge with friends at night. Unable to find any of the organizers or strike leaders, members of the mob threatened to “burn the whole block,” according to the Afro American.

Mayor Bradshaw blamed the incident on “radical” and “hot-headed” persons, according to the Associated Press. The Afro American reported that Bradshaw said he was “not sure” whether the mob burned the car at all or whether it “caught fire itself.”

Union Organizers Forced Out of Town

Crisfield Sheriff William Dryden said he and his deputies were out of town during the car burning and when they returned did not make any arrests. The next day, Dahl reported from Salisbury that he had been “forced out of town” by vigilantes. He sent a telegram to Governor Nice requesting protection. Mayor Bradshaw denied any knowledge of Dahl’s eviction from the town.

Upturf Area, Possible CIO Refuge in Crisfield: 1938

Upturf area of Crisfield where CIO organizer Michael Howard may have been when his car was overturned & burned. Original photo courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

The following week, another CIO organizer was accosted. The men stopped an unidentified Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) union representative in front of Boycraft factory, where 200 shirt makers were employed.

He was taken down a dirt road to the Somerset County line and was warned not to try to organize workers.  “We don’t want to hurt you, but you got to get out of town,” said one member of the mob.  According to the Washington Post, the departing organizer stood up in his automobile and said, “I am a CIO organizer and I don’t want to get hurt, but I’m coming back.”

Federal Conciliator Evicted From Crisfield

On April 28, the same day the ACWA organizer was run out of town, federal mediator Stanley White was also ushered out.

In the morning, a group estimated at 150-200 men, who thought he was Howard, stopped White and detained him, then let him go.

When he went back to his lodging, proprietor James Byrd ordered him out of the Somerset Hotel.

“I ordered him out because back of him there was possible trouble. For three days he has been riding around town with Michael Howard and has been a bigger nuisance than Howard. He has even started more trouble,” Byrd said, according to an account in the Washington Post.

Byrd contacted US Rep. Thomas Goldsborough (D-MD) and asked him to get White recalled by the federal government.  A telegram arrived to that effect several hours later.

Before he left town, White went to a meeting where town officials, packinghouse owners and union representatives were to meet and confer.

A. Stengle Marine, Maryland Commissioner of Labor and an Eastern Shore resident, was asked by the governor to attend to help attempt a settlement. Governor Nice also dispatched Major Elmer P. Munshower, commander of the state police, to Crisfield to “report the true facts.”

Before Marine or Munshower arrived, some of the vigilante crowd began tossing firecrackers at White, the federal mediator. The situation became uglier and White left the meeting and went to his car.  When he cranked the ignition, a blast was heard and the auto rocked violently.  Someone had rigged a type of loud explosive to go off when the car was started, although no actual damage was done to the auto. White was then escorted out of town.

The crowd, unsatisfied at evicting White turned their attention to Howard. After much shouting and firing weapons into the air by the crowd, Howard was also escorted out of town.

Mob Violence Begins to Backfire

The anti-strike group had overplayed their hand. Running union organizers out of town usually didn’t attract a lot of attention, but evicting a federal mediator not far from Washington, DC was perhaps like poking a sleeping bear.

Crab Pickers Union Meeting in Crisfield: 1938

Meeting of CIO crab pickers union at the Shiloh M E Church May 1938. Original photo courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

The Baltimore Sun editorialized, “One need not pass judgment on the merits of the strikers’ demands to insist that a community has failed in its duty when its police do not protect a labor organizer or an official interested in settling the strike. The situation at Crisfield is confused by the race issue, since the crab pickers are almost entirely Negro women, but that fact, while it may explain the antics of the vigilantes, does not excuse them.”

The Afro American was more direct: “Observers here point out that the defiance of the packers is one of the most open revolts against the National Labor Relations Act and are watching to see what the NLRB will do in the Crisfield situation where both labor and racial rights have been invaded.”

“So grave is the situation that the slightest untoward happening, it is said, would act as a spark to begin an orgy of lynchings, murders, burnings and the general destruction of property,” the Afro American wrote.

An in-depth article in the Baltimore Sun by Alfred Charles, an Eastern Shore resident, was published April 30 with the headline, “Crisfield Merchants and Citizens Lay Crab Pickers Strike to CIO.” The piece gave the impression that the packers might be willing to settle the strike, but not to bargain or sign a contract with the CIO.

Food Shipments to Strikers Blocked

Vigilantes began stopping all cars coming into Crisfield and demanding that occupants state their business.

Howard had collected 1,000 pounds of food to distribute, but was prohibited by town authorities from moving it in, according to the Afro American. Dahl asked Gov. Nice to provide an escort for the food, but Nice stalled for time.

The Afro wrote, “Crab packers, who have openly defied all constituted authority, together with local officers and leaders, have resorted to the tactics of starving the striking crab pickers out in order to force them back to work.”

N R Coulbourn: Packinghouse Did Not Reduce Rates: 1938

Virginia Lankford or Jackson at N. R. Coulbourn packinghouse in May 1938. Coubourn did not reduce rates and workers did not strike this plant. Original image courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

Throughout the strike, the women had not engaged in picketing and had instead organized quietly out of the public view.

Five smaller packinghouses opened back up with the start of the crabbing season May 2, one paying the old rate of 35 cents and the other four paying the reduced rate, in addition to the N. R. Coulbourn house that had operated continuously since the strike began. This first chink in the strikers’ armor now put some pressure on the strikers, although the large packinghouses remained closed.

Perhaps coincidentally with the reopening of some of the packinghouses, twelve extra state troopers began appearing in Crisfield, assigned by Munshower to keep order in the town. In any event, no arrests were reported of those involved in illegal activities designed to intimidate the striking women.

Women Head to Washington

On May 3, the striking women made their next move. Three of the striking crab pickers, along with Howard, traveled to Washington. There, Senator Robert La Follette (Prog.-WI) promised careful consideration of their request for an investigation after hearing of the deplorable working conditions and the violence directed toward the strike organizers and leaders. The women, whose identities were closely guarded, also met with Maryland’s two senators, Labor Department officials and federal conciliators.

The packers again failed to appreciate the politics of their actions. The Afro reported that “Packers have let it be known that the women sent to Washington to complain to the government won’t be safe if they return to Crisfield.”

The same day, the union filed charges that eleven Crisfield packing companies were violating the National Labor Relations Act.

Packers Change Their Tune

Now understanding for the first time that the tide was beginning to turn against them, the packers altered their public position.

Back in Crisfield, Marine reported the packers did not attend scheduled meetings on April 30 or May 3 to attempt to settle the strike because—they now claimed—the plants were closed because of unprofitable operations and not because of any refusal to deal with the CIO.

Marine went on to report that J. C. W. Tawes told him, “When we are ready to operate we will deal with the representatives of the workers.”

The women were holding firm while pressure was mounting on the packers. The widespread press exposure of mob activity and resistance to the Depression-era labor laws brought political pressure from both the Governor and the federal government to settle the strike..

As the strike moved into the crab season, watermen were forced into longer, more expensive trips to sell their crabs elsewhere and the Crisfield packinghouses were losing money to packers in other towns.

Victory for the Strikers

CIO Union Wins at Crisfield: 1938

May 13, 1938 edition of the Labor Herald, an independent Baltimore based labor newspaper.

On May 9, most of the large packers broke ranks and gave in.  Meeting at the Cambridge home of Marine, representatives of eight packinghouses and Howard agreed to the terms of a contract.

The agreement was signed May 10 to restore the rate to 35 cents a gallon and recognize the CIO cannery union as the bargaining agent for the workers.  Howard, whose auto had been burned and who had been run out of town more than once, signed for the union.

Tawes, who once said in 1931 that he would close the plant rather than accede to strikers’ demands, was a signatory.  The N. R. Carson Company, which had led the drive to reduce the rates, was another signer.  In all, the agreement signed by eight packinghouses covered well over half of the crabmeat pickers in Crisfield. It was among the first large seafood worker contracts on the East Coast.

Aftermath

The national cannery union had only been formed in 1937 and achieved explosive growth, particularly among African Americans in the South and migrant workers in the West. By the Spring of 1938 it had 347 locals and 118,000 members. The cannery union also made progress in Crisfield and was able to organize oyster shuckers at a number of plants in Crisfield by 1942.

The cannery union quickly came under attack for communist influence. US Rep. Martin Dies (D-TX), who chaired the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities, took testimony before his committee that named Dahl as a member of the Communist Party in 1938. In 1941, the Washington Post reported that the Dies committee named Michael Howard as a communist.

Leif Dahl, East Coast Cannery Union Leader: 1936

Leif Dahl, in charge of East Coast organizing for the CIO cannery union shown at a New Jersey meeting of agricultural workers in 1936. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The American Federation of Labor, in a bitter rivalry with the CIO at the time, sent in its own organizers to try to wrest some of the packinghouses from the CIO union and organize the unorganized. They gained a foothold at several packinghouses in Crisfield in the early 1940s, including the W. T. Handy Co., one of the larger packinghouses where the CIO had not obtained an agreement.

In 1944, the cannery union became the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America (FTA) and was by then a leader among unions for the rights of women. Sixty-six percent of the contracts nationwide contained “equal pay for equal work” provisions, 75% contained maternity leave without loss of seniority provisions, and 44% of its elected representatives in the food service division were women.

However, after World War II, the FTA came under vicious red-baiting attacks by AFL unions, employers and elected officials, and it began losing units as quickly as it had gained them in the late 1930s.

By 1948, the AFL Meat Cutters & Butcher Workman’s Seafood Workers Local 453 were voted as the exclusive bargaining agent for nearly all packinghouses in Crisfield including J. C W Tawes & Son and C W. Howeth, completely supplanting the CIO union.

In 1950, the FTA was expelled from the CIO with nine other unions for alleged communist influence. Already in decline, it fell apart quickly after the expulsion and its few remaining workers were folded into the Distributing and Processing Workers of America.

Seafood Workers Local 453 continued to represent the workers in Crisfield and made significant improvement in wages and working conditions from the 1950s until the end of the 1980s. However, the ongoing decline of the Chesapeake Bay crab and oyster harvests and the related closure of nearly all packinghouses meant a long, slow decline in membership.  The closure of a Mrs. Paul’s frozen fish plant put an end to the union in March 1990.

(This post was updated 12/10/2012 to include Addendum 2 as part of this post.)

(This post was updated 12/28/2012 to include the Labor Herald image  in Addendum 2)

Author’s Notes

This 1938 strike led by black women workers that ended in a tangible victory is remarkable for many reasons and it represents one of the few victories on Maryland’s Eastern Shore by African Americans fighting against determined resistance prior to the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

The material for this article is derived mainly from resources in the Maryland State Archives, the National Archives, The Crisfield Heritage Foundation, The Baltimore Sun, The Afro American, The Washington Post, Pedersen’s The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57, Reutter’s Making Steel, & Feltault’s It’s How You Pick the Crab.

Accounts of this strike would be strengthened by original material from the strikers themselves—oral history, letters, diaries etc.  Hopefully future researchers will bring more of this remarkable story to light.

Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College.  He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


Addendum I: Crisfield Heritage Foundation – “Returning Home: Photographs from 1938”

In Aug. 2009, a photography instructor in California who had historical images of the Crisfield area contacted the Tawes Museum.

They are well composed, high quality images taken during or immediately after the strike (a wall calendar in one of the photos is turned to May 1938). However, the photographer, purpose and how they ended up on the West Coast are unknown.

The style, subject matter and medium are similar to US Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information photographs from that period and cover most aspects of life in Crisfield.

Ten of the images are on permanent display at the Tawes Museum at 3 Ninth St. in Crisfield. Call ahead at (410) 968-2501 to arrange to see all of these stunning photos (there are 88 total images).

The images shown from the collection on this site are low-resolution, distorted versions of the photos and it is worth the trip to see the whole collection and the detail portrayed in the collection. The images shown on this site do not do the originals justice.

One of photos in the collection may show the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters marching in Crisfield, while others show farm life, scenes of the town, industry and the people who lived in that period, including a number of photographs related to the crab pickers strike.

The photographs in this series are property of the Crisfield Heritage Foundation. All rights are reserved.


Addendum 2: Michael Howard – Fighter for Workers

Crab Pickers Union Meeting in Crisfield: 1938

Union meeting at Shiloh ME Church in Crisfield MD, May 1938. Speaker is possibly Michael Howard. Original photo courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

Michael “Mike” Howard (formerly Smith—he took his wife’s last name when they married) joined the Young Communist League in 1932.

By 1936 he had joined the Communist Party (CP) and secured work at the Eastern Rolling Mill, a steel plant of about 1,000 workers just outside of Baltimore. Bethlehem Steel owned the plant and was fighting unionization tooth and nail at all its locations.

Howard put the first chink in the company armor when he successfully led a strike at the mill in 1936 that led to wage and benefit gains for the workers.  In 1937, he obtained union recognition for the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel & Tin Workers Local 1245 and signed the first contract as president of the local union.

He served as secretary-treasurer of the Baltimore Industrial Council, the umbrella group for CIO unions.

As an organizer for the cannery workers’ union, he traveled constantly through hostile territory on Maryland’s Eastern Shore . He helped guide the largely African American women crab pickers to victory in their 1938 five week strike against the Crisfield, Maryland packinghouses, despite being run out of town on several occasions and having his car overturned and burned.

In 1936, as a member of the CP, he helped a team recruit new CP members from Cumberland, MD at the huge Celanese Mill. They ended up forming much of the core for the successful CIO organizing in Western Maryland.  Howard became the liaison between the CIO and the Communist Party in Maryland.

Eastern Rolling Mill Strike Won: 1936

Howard led the strike at Eastern Rolling Mill to victory in 1936. Labor Herald, Vol. 1, No. 5, June 26, 1936.

As a CP member in 1936 he also volunteered to go door-to-door in East Baltimore to gain support for unionization at Sparrow’s Point, the massive mill in Dundalk outside of Baltimore. He worked briefly as an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America before securing employment himself at the Point.

He worked hard to persuade his co-workers to vote for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in a 1941 National Labor Relations Board election. Following the union victory, he was elected zone committeeman in charge of all grievances for 2,400 workers in the open hearth department, the biggest in the mill.  Notably while there he fought for promotions for black steelworkers. Eventually he was chosen to chair the whole mill’s grievance committee.

When President Harry Truman seized the coal mines during a 1946 strike and the Taft-Hartley anti-labor, anti-communist act passed in 1947, Howard felt Truman was moving to reverse all the gains that labor had made. He threw himself into the third party candidacy of Henry Wallace in 1948 and quit attending CP meetings when he felt they were not sufficiently backing Wallace’s candidacy.

The steelworkers union was backing Truman and promptly removed Howard as zone committeeman on trumped-up charges of malfeasance. In 1951 he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) where he refused to answer questions about individuals, despite the CP expelling him three years earlier.

The company didn’t fire him as he expected, but he was stung when his coworkers, whom he had fought so hard for, stopped speaking to him. Many eventually came back around but, in a 1982 interview with author Mark Reutter for the book Making Steel, he reflected:

Really, I thought I was fighting on a different level. I was fighting on a level which went to my Marxist beliefs, and I was working for them on a level which represented only their particular interactions with the company. And perhaps it shows what a poor job I did in radicalizing and politicizing the people in my department. Perhaps I should have done a better job of bringing the two together. I’m sure I could have done a better job than I did.

Isolated from his coworkers and his comrades and frozen out of his union, Howard quit the plant in 1953, went back to school, and later worked conducting experiments with precision instruments that he had first encountered in the steel mills. Michael Howard died on June 30, 1986.