“Girls, We Can’t Lose!”: In 1930s St Louis, Black Women Workers Went on Strike and Won
Ninety years ago this May, eighteen-year-old food worker Carrie Smith marched onto the shop floor of a nut processing factory in St Louis and initiated one of the most successful labor actions of the Great Depression. “The heavy stuff is here,” Smith said, observing the urgency and decisiveness of the moment upon them. “Get your hats and let’s go.”
Over the course of eight days, the Funsten Nut Strike put two thousand predominantly black female industrial workers on picket lines across five factories. The strike was led and organized by radical black working-class women — including Smith, who confronted a foreman to make sure her coworkers would exit safely.
On that first morning, Carrie Smith argued with the boss for two hours before taking to the picket line with a Bible in one hand and a brick in the other. “Girls,” she announced, “we can’t lose!”
The Funsten Nut Strike is little-known, but it deserves to go down in the history of Midwestern labor militancy alongside the 1877 general strike. As Keona Ervin notes in her book, Gateway to Equality: Black Women and the Struggle for Economic Justice in St. Louis:
Newspapers in and outside of the Gateway City [St. Louis] covered the episode, prominent local leaders weighed in or became involved, and the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) used the strike as a moment to mark the urban Midwest as a new hotbed for radical labor politics spearheaded by black working women.
The July Riot
During the Great Depression, St Louis’s unemployment shot through the roof. Overall joblessness jumped from 9 to 30 percent. Black workers took the first and most severe cuts, with 70 percent of the black workforce becoming either unemployed or severely underemployed.
But 1930s St Louis was also rich with radicalism. Both the Communist and the Anarchist were nationally circulating newspapers published in St Louis. So was Frank O’Hare’s National Rip-Saw (later Social Revolution), which served as an intellectual clearinghouse for Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party. Globetrotter Publishing House turned out radical pamphlets with titles like “Women Under Capitalism,” “Socialism for the Farmer,” and “Socialism and Faith in Practice.”
“I found Bohemia on the Banks of the Mississippi,” socialist writer Jack Conroy said of the city’s radical culture, informed in large part by the values of Germans who’d immigrated there in the wake of the 1848 revolutions
“In St. Louis,” Johnson writes, “the legal struggle against Jim Crow tapped into a deeper and more radical history of grassroots organizing and direct action led by Black workers, especially Black women, and by communists.”
Economic immiseration intensified St Louis’s radicalism. A year before the Funsten Nut Strike, on the morning of July 8, 1932, those dispossessed during the Depression marched on city hall, demanding to be fed. Singing “Solidarity Forever” to the tune of “John Brown’s Body,” more than a thousand gathered with signs that read, “No Evictions of Unemployed” and “We Will Work But We Won’t Starve.” Children carried signs demanding “Free Milk for the Children of the Unemployed.”
Days later, during what came to be known as the July Riot, a dozen demonstrators occupied the mayor’s office while a crowd of thousands gathered outside. The Post-Dispatch reported a black protester’s speech: “There is only one way left for the working class — that’s the militant way. I am speaking for the Negro workers who know how to fight and will fight. We will not continue to starve peacefully.”
When the crowd was told that the mayor would not meet with Communist Party organizers, fifty black women led the charge up the stairs. The police responded with tear-gas bombs, and a canister was picked up and thrown back — a scene immortalized in Jack Conroy’s novel The Disinherited, and echoed in the 2014 Michael Brown protests in St Louis, when Edward Crawford, clad in an American flag shirt, launched a smoking canister back at riot police.
The July Riot was one in a series of 1930s “hunger marches” in the city. On this occasion, police briefly retreated before drawing guns, swinging billy clubs, and shooting into the crowd. Children were trampled, and four protesters were shot.
While the police commissioner said he was sympathetic to the unemployed, in the following days uniformed and armed policemen arrested suspected members of the St Louis Communist Party for their role in the protests. But despite the crackdown, the July Riot yielded results. St Louis’s Board of Aldermen passed an emergency motion to appropriate $25,000 in food distribution centers throughout the city.
The next summer, in 1933, the struggle spilled into the workplace. Nut pickers at several processing facilities began holding secret meetings. The rendezvous were led by black women, several of whom were veterans of the July Riot.
Ten and Four
“The scene outside the plants during the nine days of the strike was by turns (and depending on one’s perspective) inspiring, chaotic, and violent,” Johnson writes in Broken Heart. The Funsten walkout was an action long in the making, organized across various locations, in clandestine get-togethers of six, then twenty, then fifty. The organizers were aided by the St Louis Communist Party, in particular a labor activist named William Sentner.
On the first day, one white worker, Nora Diamond, was quoted in the labor press explaining that the wages and working conditions of the black workers “don’t affect me.” Diamond was staying on the job because the strike was “led by the wrong kind of people, Russians, foreigners.”
As Myrna Fichtenbaum notes in her book The Funsten Nut Strike, “Women represented around 30% of the workforce” in 1930s Missouri. The occupations open to black women were hairdresser, waitress, cafeteria help, seamstress, houseworker, laundry worker, tobacco factory worker, and nut factory worker. Almost all of these workplaces maintained Jim Crow policies physically separating workers in different facilities.
At the time, St Louis had zero black officials in locally elected office. The city was the “last stop on the railroad before entering the South,” Fichtenbaum writes. “It was here that the cars were changed to designations of ‘Colored’ and ‘White.’”
primarily women of Polish descent, black women earned 3 to 4 cents per pound of shelled nuts, not the 4 to 6 cents the immigrant workers earned. Black women did work that caused physical strain, picking nutmeats from their shells, while the Polish women had the preferred assignment of sorting and weighing the pieces.
This was a time when St Louis was the center of the pecan industry, up current from the Mississippi River Valley that had proved ideal for growing large groves of natural pecan trees. In the Gateway City, sixteen factories, seven owned by the R. E. Funsten Company, employed about three thousand women in grueling food processing jobs.
At Funsten, black women worked nine hours a day, five and a half days a week, starting at 6:45 a.m. and stopping at 4:45 p.m. with forty-five minutes for lunch. White women worked shorter days, starting at 7 a.m., stopping at 4:30 p.m., and receiving a whole hour for lunch.
Indignities small and large abounded at Funsten Nut. Nutmeat produced permanent stains, and the cost for aprons was deducted out of workers’ weekly pay. The bathrooms were unsanitary despite the workers handling food. Additionally, writes Fichtenbaum, “working with the nuts emitted a dust which precipitated coughing.” She writes:
Seated at a table, after obtaining a 25 lb. bag of nuts, the women separated the meats from the shells with a knife. Halves were placed in one pile, broken pieces in another. The shells were also kept, so that upon completion all of it could be weighed once more, making sure that it all added up to the original 25 lbs.
White women worked on the first floor, while black women worked in the basement of some buildings and on the second floor of others. “It wasn’t clean,” a worker named Josie Moore told Fichtenbaum. “They didn’t have no windows. They had big doors that just come open.” When it was cold,
they fastened the doors and they’d have a little heat in there, very little. They kept the lights on all the time. Oh, it was terrible. I remember a couple of women taking sick and they told the man, the boss, that they would have to go home. He said, “Well if you start that going home, you just stay there.”
Two years prior to the strike, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that the Funsten women had suffered five wage cuts. Then there was the most common complaint: being cheated at the final weighing.
Picking demanded speed, dexterity, and endless patience. Sorting did as well. Black women pickers were paid three cents per pound of halves, and two cents for pieces — in other words, three and two. Coined by Carrie Smith, “We demand ten and four!” became the strike motto. Ten cents for halves, four for pieces.
Dickmann Versus the Nut Shellers
“Animals in the Zoo Are Fed While We Starve” read one picket sign outside of a Funsten plant. Strikers carried Bibles and interrupted the line now and then to pray. Husbands and children joined the march from plant to plant, calling for the women who remained inside to come out.
On the first day of the strike, only black women stood on the picket lines. By the second, the lines were multiracial. One woman interviewed recalled, “They came they hollered for us to ‘Come out, the strike is on!’ and most of the women dropped their work and went out and joined in.”
Each shop elected its own strike committee and captains, and planned to meet with the mayor. “Imagine the vulnerability these women faced,” historian Walter Johnson told Jacobin. “They had to reassure that number of people who are really one step away from being out of work. They are really at the bottom of the class order.”
Work at Funsten Nut was an exercise in racial discrimination, but the multiracial picket lines were representative of the realities of working-class life in St Louis, where working-class neighborhoods were often populated by black and immigrant communities. In those intermingled bohemian neighborhoods, working-class solidarity could be built organically, neighbor to neighbor.
“We believe we are entitled to live as well as other folks live,” Carrie Smith told newly elected Mayor Bernard F. Dickmann at a meeting. “And should be entitled to a wage that will provide us with ample food and clothing.” Ervin writes that a worker named Caroline Lewis spoke at the same meeting and “shared that her three-dollar average weekly wage kept her household, comprising her mother and her four children, mired in poverty.” In negotiations, Lewis told Mayor Dickmann that working women’s low wages, not paid labor itself, made mothering difficult.
Over the course of eight days, city police escorted strikebreakers through angry crowds, and at least ninety strikers were arrested for disturbing the peace. Many women made their court appearances bruised and bandaged from what Johnson calls the “curbside justice to which the arresting officers had subjected them.”
On the ninth day, May 24, the Funsten owners and Mayor Dickmann folded. Eighteen-year-old Carrie Smith emerged from city hall with an offer from the company to double their wages — close to the demanded “ten and four” quota. Smith and the mayor drove to the Communist Party headquarters where seven hundred strikers had assembled and presented them with the company’s proposal. It was unanimously approved.
A Watershed Moment
The Funsten Nut strikers had shown the labor movement and the civil rights movement the way forward. “They fiercely resisted red-baiting,” Ervin writes, “persuasively criticized liberal reformism, creatively bridge local struggles for economic justice and black freedom, and broke new ground for working-class women’s leadership.”
“You must follow these steps of these nutpickers,” the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) urged in a subsequent pamphlet. “You must organize yourselves and strike!” According to the journal Working Women, the nutpickers had “aroused the masses of St. Louis like no other strike in years,” gaining the “full sympathy and solidarity of the St. Louis working class. . . . One would think that the Negro woman had been for years trained in the working-class movement.”
The Funsten Nut Strike “set the stage for a wave of struggle over the following two decades,” Ervin writes. “Women merged feminist, labor, black freedom, and antipoverty agendas to construct broad visions of community empowerment and democratically controlled urban landscapes.”
The strike had a major impact on the political landscape in St Louis. For example, notes Johnson, “The St Louis Urban League had been founded in 1918 to assist southern migrants in their transition to life in the city.” For some League members, it was difficult to make common cause with black women of the working poor who couldn’t abide by health requirements and had “open sores on their arms and their hands,” which was the reason given for the League’s formal refusal to get involved with the strike. After the strike, a different story took hold. “The Urban League’s Women’s Division became particularly attuned to the needs of black women,” Ervin told Jacobin. “They wanted to find out where they were working, and what they needed.”
Black workers in St Louis continued to strike through the years of the Depression and World War II. Notable civil rights figures cut their teeth in that period of militancy, including Marian Oldham, Frankie Freeman, DeVerne Lee Calloway, and Ora Lee Malone. As Johnson notes:
Because Blacks had long voted in St. Louis, the city’s freedom movement, from the beginning to the end, emphasized economic equality in addition to issues of access to public accommodations, parks, and pools. The critique of economic injustice that historians identify as having come to characterize the mainstream of the Civil Rights Movement only in 1968, with Martin Luther King Jr.’s support of the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, had a much longer history in St. Louis.
After the strike, C. L. R. James and Claudia Jones visited Missouri to find out what working-class black people in the Midwest were doing and learn from them. We can do the same today. “I think it’s so critical to draw this genealogy of black women’s working-class radicalism,” Ervin told Jacobin, “and to demonstrate this larger history that is a living one. The Ferguson liberation movement, the Fight for 15, the radical tenant organizing in Kansas City — this is all deeply connected.”
Devin Thomas O’Shea’s writing has appeared in the Nation, Protean, Current Affairs, Boulevard, and elsewhere.
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