My First Strike
by Sylvia Weinstein
Sylvia Weinstein gave a speech at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in 1993. It was a very personal speech telling how she had become a socialist and how she became a feminist out of her own experiences. This is a brief excerpt:
The first strike I was involved in was organized by my step-grandmother in 1936. I was 10 years old. She worked for the P. Lorillard Tobacco Co. My step grandmother and several workers wanted to get a union at their workplace. Working people all over the country were organizing themselves and fighting for unionization. Her boss knew about the secret union and called my grandmother into his office and said how he thought unions were a good idea and he would like to talk to her and the other organizers. My grandmother, very naively, told the other organizers and they went into the boss office, all four of them. As soon as she got into the office the boss, after making sure that these four were the total number of organizers, ordered them all off the property and said if he ever caught them near the factory he would have them arrested. My grandmother went out onto the factory floor, stood on a tobacco basket and told the other workers what had happened. Every single one of them left the plant.
They set up a full field kitchen, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner to all the strikers and their families and anyone else who was hungry. Shop keepers would donate canned food and farmers from around the area delivered meat, vegetables, eggs, and milk to the strike kitchen. Then came the showdown. I was ordered by my grandmother to serve in the kitchen, washing dishes and serving food. So I got a first-hand look at just how strong women could be when they got angry.
The Governor sent in the National Guard to stop the strikers. At the crack of dawn workers began to arrive at the factory to wait for the Guard. My grandmother was in the front line and she made me stand with her. As the day wore on more and more workers arrived. They filled about three blocks standing shoulder to shoulder and building to building. It was a very hot day. There we stood and soon we heard the sound of trucks. Up came about 10 trucks filled with soldiers carrying their guns, dressed for battle. The trucks came right up to the strikers who were blocking the street. One of the soldiers yelled at my grandmother to move out of the way or he would roll over her. My grandmother, with great dignity looked at him and said, Young man, Ive put diapers on boys your age so if you want to roll over us then come on. We aint moving!
We stood eye to truck fender for what seemed like hours. Finally we heard workers down the line starting to applaud and yell. The trucks began to back out. We had won!
This excerpt is from a speech that will be part of a book of columns by Sylvia Weinstein to be published soon. You may pre-order the book through this magazine.