Renegade unionism

A history of District 65

A Renegade Union:

Interracial Organizing and Labor Radicalism

In the darkest years of the Great Depression, five Jewish shop workers met and talked about their workplace on Orchard Street in the heart of the Lower East Side of New York City and decided to organize a union. Working as clerks at H. Eckstein and Sons Wholesale Merchant, they specialized in selling and delivering underwear, pajamas, and other items of clothing to customers in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Hours were long and wages were low. In the middle of the Great Depression there was no chance for advancement. And at least one of these workers, Arthur Osman, was a member of the Communist Party. What began as an organization of five sales clerks would become one of the most progressive and militant left-led unions in the history of New York City. 

Renegade Union: Interracial Organizing and Labor Radicalism by Lisa Phillips is a fascinating contribution to one of the untold stories of American labor history. It tells the story of the union that came to be known simply as District 65. Beginning with an affiliation to the Trade Union Unity League of the “Third Period” Communist Party, the original Wholesale Dry Goods Workers (WDGW) would rename itself and continually search for organizational affiliations throughout its history, passing in and out of the AFL and later the CIO, and affiliating with a variety of different international unions, like the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union, and then the United Auto Workers. To the members who built a fighting union of minority and immigrant workers in the small shops on the periphery of established industries, it was simply known as “65.”

The history of District 65 provides a glimpse into the politics of the Communist Party of the Depression years and on through the period of McCarthyism and the labor movement during the Cold War. Though world politics have changed in ways that the original founders of the union could never have imagined, much of the legacy they left behind can serve as a resource for radicals working to build a fighting workers movement today. 

District 65 became renowned for organizing workers in the shops that the rest of the established labor movement viewed as too small to bother with, or ignored because they didn’t fit neatly into their defined jurisdictions. It started out organizing the sales clerks who were ancillary to the garment industries, while the three major garment unions in New York City (the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, and the United Hebrew Trades) had little to no interest in organizing sales people, and instead focused on the workers involved in the production of clothing. Likewise, District 65 began by unionizing shops of between ten and thirty workers, while other unions in the distributive trades focused on warehouses and workplaces with larger numbers of employees. 

Not unlike the labor movement of today, many of the unions in New York City in the 1930s thought it was a waste of resources to focus on unionizing small workplaces or thought that it was impossible to organize “dead end jobs” because of their transitory nature or the improbability of establishing a regular base of dues paying members. Many of the shops would go out of business in the cutthroat competition that existed between small businesses vying over a finite customer base. Instead, District 65 focused on unionizing the most precarious jobs, and through the use of union contracts, forced employers to hire only union members through the District 65 hiring hall. 

The use of the hiring hall was the centerpiece of the union’s strategy, which worked like this: A worker could sign up and join the union without being employed at a unionized shop. Their name would be added to the list of union members looking for work and, when the next job opened at a shop that was unionized, the employer would call the union hall and ask for an employee to be sent to them. The newly signed member would then be sent on to work. Paired with an aggressive program to unionize more and more shops across the city, the union could rely on its members’ loyalty and would have dependable union support in each workplace, because the employer only hired members.

What made District 65 different from other unions that employed this mechanism was a commitment to militant enforcement of shop floor power rather than reliance on jealously guarded craft skills, yearly campaigns to organize more and more workplaces, and a social movement unionism that cast District 65 as a defender of the class interests of its members rather than a narrow section of the working class with specific and competing interests. 

Through the union’s power, the precariousness of employment for the many thousands of union members began to wane, and workers were able to win more and more concessions from the bosses, and gain a measure of job security and stability. Small employers then were as renowned as they are today for low wages, lack of benefits, irregular scheduling, holiday work and, oftentimes, the petty tyranny of a boss who worked right alongside members of the union. Before the success of the union’s clever strategy, the idea of permanent and stable employment for the three or four workers at a corner candy shop, a small beauty supply store, or a button “manufacturer” with eight employees seemed like a dream. Over the years, District 65 was able to transform thousands of precarious and incidental jobs around New York City (and eventually as far afield as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Newport News, Virginia) into permanent and stable jobs by increasing the shop floor power of small groups of workers.

This was no small feat. In order to win new shops and enforce standards and work rules, District 65 made extensive use of the strike weapon. The leaders of the union soon realized that due to the nature of the small shops competing ruthlessly with other small employers in the area, companies were extremely vulnerable to strikes, and could be played off against each other through a strategy of targeted workplace actions. As well, members who were unemployed and waiting on the hiring hall list for job placement were expected to walk picket lines each week in exchange for continuing to receive their benefits and maintaining their spot on the hiring list. In this way, District 65 knew it could count on hundreds of members maintaining a constant presence outside of struck companies, even if they weren’t actual employees of the shop. And members of the union took comfort knowing that if they went out on strike, other union members would walk the pickets in the same way.

To continue to build solidarity amongst the members, District 65 was famous for hosting a dizzying array of social and political activities at its union headquarters off Astor Place. Moe Foner, whose brother Philip, a famous US labor historian, for a time ran the cultural and entertainment program of the union, before moving on to the same job for a sister union, SEIU 1199. “That building was rocking seven days and nights every week,” Foner recalled. The union hall hosted lectures on the political questions of the day, but also parties, big band concerts, art shows, and game nights. The officers of the union found this to be an imperative part of the union culture, considering the widely divergent background of the union’s membership, with many thousands of Black, Puerto Rican, Jewish, and Italian immigrants, and many more participating in the union’s activities together.

A core part of District 65’s social movement unionism was an unapologetic commitment to fighting racism, from the shop floors of New York City to the Jim Crow South. Like other unions influenced by the CP, District 65 sent its share of members to participate in the CP-controlled civil rights organizations of the time, like the National Negro Congress. Through the 1950s, District 65 donated thousands of dollars to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and would host Martin Luther King Jr. every year at the union headquarters from the days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott until his death. But unlike other unions, who were more than willing to donate money to the struggle against Jim Crow in the South while simultaneously distancing themselves from the northern civil rights movement or ignoring racism within their own unions, District 65 incorporated the fight for integration and the elimination of racial pay disparities into its daily operations. 

Again, the key mechanism was the union hiring hall. District 65 studied the workplaces which they’d organized, and if a boss seemed to have a “problem” hiring Black or Puerto Rican workers, the union resolved to integrate the shop and push minority union members into all job categories. Phillips describes one case where, when the union suspected that a company had rejected an applicant from the hiring hall because they were Black, it continued to send Black applicants until one was hired. This tactic is worth considering today in certain industries where specific job categories are highly segregated: in retail or restaurants, for instance, where typically the whiter the worker, the more likely they are to have the best-paying server jobs, or even to be hired at all. 

Given the historic mistrust between different racial and ethnic groups in New York City, however, and considering the initial concentration of most members in Jewish enclaves, the union had to make a political priority of recruiting Blacks and other minorities to the union. For example, the union specifically sought to organize second-hand clothing shops that were largely staffed by Black workers. Another tactic District 65 used was to set up an affiliated organization called “The Friends of 65,” which served as a recruiting base and politicized community support groups throughout the city. One of the first chapters of “The Friends of 65” was established in Harlem.

The union also made extensive use of elected shop stewards, who had a seat on the union’s General Council and who also functioned as union organizers empowered to recruit new members from unorganized shops. The union initiated organizer training programs for its elected stewards (who tended to be racially representative of the workforce of each shop, which translated into a large number of Black shop stewards, and thus, elected leaders on the Council), hired a racially diverse office staff, and supported the creation of a “Negro Affairs Committee” to deal specifically with issues faced by Black members, along with the “Spanish Affairs Committee” and the “Jewish Affairs Committee.”

There is much more to the story of District 65, and A Renegade Union does an admirable job excavating this fascinating chapter of US labor history. The book also covers some of the union’s more painful twists and turns in its efforts to conform to official CP policy, including embarrassing reversals during World War II when it capitulated to the government’s No Strike Pledge, embodied in a self-serving refusal to support a wartime strike by a rival union—an ugly smirch on an otherwise proud history. 

The chapters covering the McCarthy era are truly heartbreaking to read too, as District 65 continued to publicly support every foreign policy decision of the Soviet Union, and in response, the ugly machinations of the top CIO leadership. This resulted in expulsions, raids by official AFL and CIO unions, broken strikes, and the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, significantly curbing the union’s power. Though the author is less versed, or perhaps less interested, in the intricacies of left politics in this era, her history is well worth reading, with its own lessons for those of us today who are looking for examples of how to build a fighting workers’ movement.

Issue #78

July 2011

Slavery and the origins of the Civil War

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