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Works Progress Administration Strikes, 1939

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Work Progress Administration sewing project strike, Minneapolis

1939

In the summer of 1939, workers went on strike across the nation to protest budget cuts to the Works Progress Administration imposed by the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act. While they did not bring about the act’s repeal, they kept their jobs and were allowed to return to work after the strike. Minnesota was the only state in which strikers faced criminal charges for preventing people from working.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) created jobs for millions of unemployed Americans during the Great Depression. In early 1939, Minneapolis WPA officials dismissed over 900 women workers, defending the decision by saying that the women could obtain income from Aid to Dependent Children (ADC). For most, however, getting ADC was impossible; even if they qualified, waiting for processing would deprive them of income.

As the job cuts continued, the women organized, and in May, 1500 workers voted to take a one-day strike. On June 2, more than 5,000 workers marched to the WPA’s Minneapolis office to demand re-instatement for laid-off workers and an increase in the budget for relief work. The one-day strike and march, however, did not succeed.

On Saturday, July 1, 1939, a new law went into effect: the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act (Woodrum Act). Under this law, WPA positions were slashed from 3.35 million to 2 million, and the WPA budget was cut by 773 million dollars. Skilled Twin Cities workers’ hourly wages dropped from $1.25 to 71 cents. The result was the largest nationwide strike (up to that date) in US history, with close to half a million workers on strike across the country.

On Tuesday, workers walked off their jobs at the Minnesota state fairgrounds. By the end of Wednesday, July 5, 13,350 workers were on strike in the Twin Cities alone. Workers in all sorts of projects walked off the job―plumbers, electricians, steam-fitters, sewing workers, and library workers. Even drummers in the Federal Symphonic band refused to play. Others, however, did not participate.

The next day, WPA administrator Linus C. Glotzbach declared that anyone who failed to report to work by Monday morning, July 10, would be fired and replaced with eligible workers on the relief rolls (the federal government’s lists of people looking for jobs).The strike continued, and on July 10, WPA officials announced that 90 percent of the projects were still closed in Minneapolis; 50 percent remained closed in St. Paul.

Thanks to previous organizing efforts, like the 1934 truckers’ strike, workers in the Twin Cities did not hesitate to engage in militant direct action. Pickets went to the various projects and prevented workers from breaking the strike by going back to work.

Violent clashes ensued. On Monday, July 10, fights along the picket line occurred at the sewing project headquartered at 123 2nd St North, and it was closed for the next five days. On July 14, there was a second battle at the sewing project, this time between pickets and police. A crowd of 3,000 had amassed in the area. Seemingly unprovoked, police fired into the crowd, killing one relief client and injuring twenty-four.

Neither the mayor of Minneapolis, George Leach, nor the governor of Minnesota, Harold Stassen, wanted to deal with the strike. They argued that since the WPA was a federal project, the city and state were not responsible for maintaining law and order. Previously, when there had been a labor dispute at a project, it had been shut down. Keeping projects open meant that workers would continue protesting.

Over the next week, a joint strike committee met with Glotzbach and Stassen to come to an agreement. The bosses got the workers to accept their existing wages and working conditions, and the strike was settled on July 21. Most of the laid off or fired workers were then re-instated or re-assigned to their jobs.

The fight was far from over, however. Twenty-five FBI agents had infiltrated the strike and uncovered a hard picket—a picket where workers physically prevent scabs from going to work by blocking entrances. The hard picket violated section 28 of the Woodrum Act, which stipulated that any person who denied another’s relief benefits by means of fraud, force, threat, or intimidation was guilty of a felony. As a result, hundreds of strikers were tried in court and given unusually high bail, and were convicted of felonies.

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“130-hour WPA Law Sticks, F.R. Says; FBI Probes Strike.” Minneapolis Tribune, July 12, 1939.

“5,000 Unemployed Demand Work for All at Union Wages.” Northwest Organizer, June 8, 1939, .

“500,000 WPA Workers in Nation Declare Strike Against New Relief Bill.” Northwest Organizer, July 13, 1939.

Albert, Blanche. “On WPA Projects.” Northwest Organizer, August 24, 1939.

――― . “On WPA Projects.” Northwest Organizer, July 27, 1939.

――― . “On WPA Projects.” Northwest Organizer, June 8, 1939.

“All Unions Join Drive to Free WPA Strikers.” Northwest Organizer, August 31, 1939.

“Arrests Slow Down But Anderson Says ‘More Indictments.’” Northwest Organizer, August 31, 1939.

Boscoe, John. “Labor Answers Stassen—A Speech by John Boscoe.” Northwest Organizer, August 3, 1939.

Cott, Nancy F. No Small Courage: a History of Women in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Erickson, Herman. “WPA Strike and Trials of 1939.” Minnesota History 42, no. 6 (Summer 1971): 202‒214.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/42/v42i06p202-214.pdf

Faue, Elizabeth. Community of Suffering and Struggle: Women, Men, and the Labor Movement in Minneapolis, 1915‒1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Folsom, Franklin. Impatient Armies of the Poor: The Story of Collective Action of the Unemployed, 1808‒1942. Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1991.

Goldberg, Chad. Citizens and Paupers: Relief, Rights, and Race, From the Freedmen's Bureau to Workfare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

“FWS Plans Action vs. Relief Cuts; New WPA Cut of 900,000 Jobs Looms.” Northwest Organizer, May 4, 1939.

“House OK’s Roosevelt’s Relief Slash, Paves Way for Tremendous WPA Cut.” Northwest Organizer, June 22, 1939.

Irene Paul papers, undated and 1907‒1981
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: The collection includes material on progressive politics and labor movements in Minnesota, 1907‒1959.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00701.xml

“Labor Calls For Aid For Indicted.” Northwest Organizer, August 24, 1939.

“Labor Unites to Defend Indicted Strikers.” Northwest Organizer, August 24, 1939.

“Local Labor Defense WPA Strike; Gives Crushing Answer to Stassen.” Northwest Organizer, August 3, 1939.

McDonald, Dwight. “WPA Cuts―or Jail.” Nation 150 (February 3, 1940): 121‒123.

Nicholas, Vic W. “On WPA Projects.” Northwest Organizer, April 13, 1939.

P1730
Records of the state supervisor of workers education, [193‒]‒1940
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Correspondence and reports regarding the WPA in Minnesota, including information on the 1939 strike.

P337
Farmer‒Labor Association of Minnesota records, 1918‒1948
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Box 5 contains the text of a speech by Tom Mooney delivered on August 28, 1939, regarding the WPA strike and subsequent arrests.

“Roosevelt’s Anti-Labor Stand Should Su[r]prise No One, Capitol Scribes Say.” Northwest Organizer, July 27, 1939.

Rose, Nancy Ellen. Put to Work: The WPA and Public Employment in the Great Depression. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009.

“Showdown Nears as Alliance Calls State WPA Protest.” Minneapolis Tribune, July 9, 1939.

“Strike Settlement Ratified; Unions To Fight Frameups.” Northwest Organizer, July 27, 1939.

“Welfare Board Gives ‘Indian Gift’ to Ex-WPA Strikers.” Northwest Organizer, August 24, 1939.

“WPA Onslaught Proceeds; Scores Ousted.” Northwest Organizer, August 17, 1939.

“WPA Projects Closed as Strikers Press Demands.” Northwest Organizer, July 20, 1939.

“WPA Projects in Minnesota Closed Down Tight by Strike.” Northwest Organizer, July 13, 1939.

WPA Strike Grows Despite Warning of Wholesale Firings.” Minneapolis Tribune, July 7, 1939.

“WPA Strikers in City Pledge Fight to Finish.” Minneapolis Tribune, July 8, 1939.

“WPA Strikers in Twin Cities Lead Shutdown in State.” Northwest Organizer, July 13, 1939.

“WPA Strikers Victimized by Courts.” Northwest Organizer, July 20, 1939.

Related Images

Work Progress Administration sewing project strike, Minneapolis
Work Progress Administration sewing project strike, Minneapolis
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Strike at the WPA gravel pit project
Police, strikers, and workers at Dunning Field.
Police, strikers, and workers at Dunning Field.
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Work Progress Administration sewing project strike, Minneapolis.
Work Progress Administration sewing project strike, Minneapolis.
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Police dragging a striking worker
Work Progress Administration sewing project strike, Minneapolis.
Work Progress Administration sewing project strike, Minneapolis.
Crowd demonstrating in front of the Minneapolis sewing project
Crowd demonstrating in front of the Minneapolis sewing project
WPA Sewing Project, Minneapolis.
WPA Sewing Project, Minneapolis.

Turning Point

On July 1, 1939, the federal government cuts funding for unemployment relief by 773 million dollars. In response, workers across the United States (including those in Minnesota) go on strike.

Chronology

June 2, 1939

In Minneapolis, more than 5,000 workers march to the local WPA office to demand re-instatement for laid-off workers and an increase in the budget for relief work.

July 1

A new federal law goes into effect: the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act (or Woodrum Act, after its author). Under the act, about one million WPA positions are eliminated and the WPA budget is cut by about 800 million dollars.

July 5

After more cuts are announced, a total of 15,750 Minnesota workers—13,350 of them in the Twin Cities—are reported absent from their jobs.

July 6

WPA administrator Glotzbach declares that anyone who fails to report to work by Monday morning, July 10, will be fired and replaced with eligible workers on the relief rolls.

July 10

The WPA sewing project closes down (and remains closed for five days) after a scuffle breaks out at the end of the workday.

July 11

2,000 demonstrators at the state capitol vote by voice to extend the shutdown to white-collar projects.

July 12

A University of Minnesota research project attracts pickets when scabs enter and exit the building. A local fascist in the Silver Shirts gang, Philip Slaughter, stabs one striking picket and cuts the hand of another. Glotzbach fires 1000 strikers.

July 14

Police fire their guns into a crowd of people at the sewing-project site, killing one and injuring twenty-four.

July 18

Most WPA workers across the country return to their jobs.

July 19

US district attorney Victor Anderson reveals that the federal government is going to prosecute the pickets.

July 21

WPA workers agree to end the strike without gains.

July 24

A federal grand jury investigates whether the strikers violated section 28 of the Woodrum Act. Over 100 people were tried in groups as large as 25 defendants. Federal Attorney Anderson originally wanted 90 of the defendants to be tried as a group.