On The Popular Front: New York City’s Department Store Union Culture,
1937-1941 [1]

Daniel Opler
, Harry Van Arsdale, Jr. Center for Labor Studies, Empire State College

Union organizers faced a lot of obstacles in the upscale department stores which stood in midtown Manhattan in the 1930s.  For one thing, there was the sheer amount of supervision and scrutiny under which workers labored.  Two different groups of people in the stores kept close eyes on the workers’ activities.  The mostly wealthy customers often viewed workers with antipathy and wouldn’t hesitate to turn in a worker for any cause, including union activity.  Store managers also had some of the most intricate spy systems in the country, willingly spending $50,000 each year at one store to keep an eye out for unusual behavior, including both shoplifting and union organizing.  In addition to supervision, many workers were very loyal to store management; managers encouraged this loyalty by providing all sorts of bonuses.  To make matters even worse for union organizers, the labor movement at the time was very much focused on the male blue-collar workers toiling over the assembly lines in American factories.  Steel, rubber, and auto: these were where unions formed.  Department stores were decidedly outside of the mainstream for the AFL and the newly-formed CIO alike. [2]

Yet union organizers also had some factors working to their advantage.  For one thing, midtown Manhattan was a highly contested neighborhood in the 1930s, and managers’ control of the streets outside the stores was always tenuous at best.  The garment district, as the neighborhood around 34th Street was sometimes called, contained dozens of factories and warehouses, and workers at these businesses showed a definite tendency to strike in the mid-1930s.  (The garment district’s labor troubles reached their zenith that year when the guards hired to protect a group of warehouses during a strike did not get paid promptly and immediately staged a protest, marching against the detective agency that employed them, only a few blocks north of 34th Street.)  If anything, the labor problems in the garment district got more violent in succeeding years; in 1935, during a strike of shipping clerks on 38th street a Western Union messenger simply going by the strike was shot.  In 1936 and in 1937, strikes of thousands of building service workers once again hit the garment district.  Complicating the struggles over the neighborhood still further, the Communist Party, at the height of its power as the most important radical organization in America, was also laying claim to the area.  Each year, the Communists held a parade in honor of May Day, and these parades, conducted without permits, went right through the heart of the garment district, marching along 32nd Street, just south of the great upscale stores.  All these various forms of working-class and radical activism made it clear that managers’ control was limited, and stability and control within the stores were a very high priority for managers.  If organizers could make it clear that accepting unionization would be less disruptive than the alternative, they might well force managers to back down. [3]

Events at other stores also worked in the unions’ favor.  In 1937, workers at downscale chain stores, stores that catered to less wealthy people, went on strike.  By far the most important of these strikes were the Woolworth strikes in Detroit and New York City, which took place throughout February and March of 1937.  In these strikes, workers sat down at their jobs, just as assembly line workers had done in the weeks before the strikes at the chain stores.  And, just as in the assembly line strikes, workers at the chain stores refused to move or give in until managers met their demands.  The chain store workers won a tremendous contract. [4]

As a result, workers in the upscale stores began to gradually support unionization, and, with moderate CIO leaders promising that unionization would result in stability, managers quickly signed contracts.  Workers at Gimbel’s, Stern’s, Macy’s, as well as several other stores throughout the city won unions from 1937 through 1939.  But winning workers’ support was one thing; winning a contract another, and winning tangible gains for workers was something else altogether.  And throughout the late 1930s, the unions remained fairly small at all stores; often entire sections, such as the sales workers at Macy’s or the office workers at Gimbel’s, were not unionized for two or even three years after the initial contract.  And even after winning a union contract, workers in these stores faced a new challenge: how could they force managers to make concessions, especially given all the challenges workers faced when trying to organize within the stores.  How could organizers in these stores win these white-collar workers the same rights blue-collar workers were winning across the country, like higher wages and, perhaps most importantly, the forty-hour week?  Blue-collar workers received the forty-hour week in 1938, when the federal government passed the Federal Labor Standards Act, the FLSA, arguably the most important piece of labor legislation in American history.  But the FLSA, important though it was, did not apply to retail workers. [5]

In New York City’s upscale department stores, workers fought for the right to work eight hours a day, a right that other workers had already achieved; to do so union organizers in these stores would have to create a coalition of support.  To create this coalition, they created unions with a strong cultural program, assembling artists and writers to their causes, and binding the unions closely to the Popular Front, the broad-based anti-fascist coalition supported by the Communist Party in the late 1930s.  The coalition they formed was strong enough to win the workers the much-lauded eight-hour day. [6]

How To Make A Popular Front: Cultural Activists in the Department Store Unions

Since the beginning of department store unions’ activities in 1934, writers and artists had played key roles in their activism.  However, in the late 1930s, with the beginning of the Popular Front, there was nonetheless a significant shift in the role of writers and artists.  Writers and artists would now help to make these unions part of a national and even an international struggle, a role they had not performed earlier.

Before 1937, the most important role artists played in the department store unions was in their direct support during strikes, by marching the picket lines alongside department store workers.  In the strikes at the Klein’s and Ohrbach’s stores on Union Square, for instance, writers and actors walked the picket line alongside store workers, even getting arrested for the cause.  (One performance of the play The Shores of Cattano had to be cancelled during the strike, because the entire cast was in jail for walking the picket line.)  Some writers argued that this was only natural; they, too, were white-collar workers, just like the store workers were.  Later in 1935, writers like Leane Zugsmith played key roles in the League of Women Shoppers (LWS), a consumer-based organization created to support workers’ struggles against management, and in later strikes members of the Artists’ League gathered to join the workers’ picket lines. [7]

These instances meant that department store union organizers had long experience in working alongside cultural activists.  Zugsmith, the other writers who got arrested at Union Square, and the Artists’ League were all important members of New York’s community of radical artists.  However, most of the time, the artists involved in the department store unions’ struggles were involved as people, not as artists; they were bodies who would assemble at picket lines and rallies and serve on the letterhead of organizations, not as participants in creating a cultural program to accompany unionization.  It was not until the Popular Front that this changed, that the artists who acted in support of the union’s causes were now involved in creating a cultural backbone to the union’s efforts.

In the late 1930s, as the union expanded and gained a large and stable membership for the first time in its history, union leaders did begin to seek out means to create cultural programs within the unions.  There were several reasons for this determination, perhaps most important among them the efforts of upscale store managers to create cultural programs for their employees.  Store managers encouraged workers who had vacation time, for instance, to spend it at a special house owned by Macy’s out in the countryside.  There were also holiday bonuses: Macy’s managers provided workers with free turkeys each Thanksgiving, turkeys that were remembered gratefully even by staunch union supporters.  Managers also had a special health-care system for workers, where workers would go not to a regular hospital, but to the Macy’s Mutual Aid Association, the MMAA offices, where doctors were available to them.  And workers who were athletically inclined could participate in the Greater New York Department Store Baseball League, where members of different store teams played against each other. [8]

Perhaps most important of all the cultural programs provided by Macy’s were those that were open to all people in New York City, like the Thanksgiving Day parade.  Beginning in 1924, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade gave the managers of one major department store a chance to entertain, with marching bands, circus performers of all sorts, caged animals, parade floats, and, in case any onlookers had forgotten about the holiday shopping season, Santa Claus.  The planning and costs for the event were enormous, but the Macy’s parade was nonetheless an incredibly effective way for managers to encourage workers, customers, and community alike to have pride and admiration for the store that provided this joyous spectacle every year. [9]

These cultural programs and benefits packages—the turkeys, health-care programs, and baseball league as well as the parade—worked well to win workers’ support.  Nearly fifty years after she had worked at Macy’s, Jane Spadavecchio, who began working at Macy’s in the early 1940s, described herself as a “firm Macyite,” one who was still grateful for the benefits that the store managers had provided.  As other historians (most importantly Lizabeth Cohen) have pointed out, this was one of the most serious obstacles to unionization in America during the early part of the twentieth century: companies provided workers with benefits and cultural programs designed specifically to win their loyalty, and the bid for workers’ loyalty was often successful.  If union leaders were to contest managers’ control at all, they would have to begin using the artists they had united with in earlier struggles to create competing opportunities for cultural identification. [10]

Therefore from 1938 on, when workers began to win union contracts at the city’s upscale stores, they made cultural and social programs a central part of the union’s efforts.  Organizers created a number of different sports programs to rival managers’ baseball league, including a Swim/Gym program, which began as a swimming and basketball program at a local high school.  Organizers expanded the basketball activities from the Swim/Gym into part of a city-wide women’s basketball league, with teams from each store’s union competing with one another and with other local teams once a week. The league served not only as an alternative to managers’ baseball league; it was also critical in forming the sorts of attitudes that the union needed if it was to thrive.  Workers in the Swim/Gym program would spend time not only with workers at their own store, but also with workers from other stores around the city, hopefully forging bonds of class solidarity in the process. [11]

Organizers put equal effort into other cultural and social activities.  Within Gimbel’s Local 2, for example, workers not only set up a local union library, but launched a forum and lecture series where union members were encouraged to engage in what the union newspaper described as “a sparkling exchange of opinion” between various union members.  Furniture salesmen at Gimbel’s, who were the highest-paid employees in the store, also set up parties at their homes, to allow workers to temporarily escape to larger and presumably more comfortable surroundings.  Other union organizers followed their examples, setting up “beach parties, boat parties, house parties,” and a union chorale.  Union organizers were very explicit that these activities were designed to do more than offer workers opportunities to socialize.  To organizers in the department store unions, these activities were “valuable organizing tools,” ways not only to unite workers, but to unite them as union members, and thus encourage them to identify with their union, not their employer. [12]

Perhaps even more importantly, these social activities allowed the members of the various department store locals to create alliances outside the stores.  Many of the cultural activities drew upon the culture of the Popular Front.  Union members who joined the department store unions’ “Song Shop,” for example, printed booklets of Popular Front standards like “Solidarity Forever” and “We Shall Not Be Moved,” songs which were sung both by department store workers and by participants in other Popular Front struggles around the country.  By placing these songs in the union’s song book, the Song Shop members stressed the unity between the disparate struggles of workers throughout the country: all would sing the same songs, with the same lyrics, and all would share a common cultural bond. [13]

If shared songs were one way store workers could be part of the Popular Front, parties and dances could also serve to emphasize the unity between department store union members and others involved in left-wing causes.  Particularly in the late 1930s, union organizers frequently sought to connect dances to the Spanish Civil War, by using union dances as fund-raisers for the war effort or for American veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.  While there is no record of how large these dances got, organizers did manage to attract some quite famous performers, including bandleader and radio star Rudy Vallee, to provide the entertainment at these events. [14]

Similarly, the union’s Counter Carnival, which took place in April 1939, both brought union members together in a social setting and provided links with important supporters.  This carnival included a number of “Guests of Honor,” most of whom were familiar Popular Front figures, among them Leane Zugsmith, Ruth McKenney, and Mike Quill.  Each of these individuals was an important guest in their own way.  As already noted, Leane Zugsmith had long been involved with the department store unions in various ways, including through the League of Women Shoppers.  Perhaps her most important achievement, however, had taken place since the founding of the LWS: Zugsmith, while still involved with the LWS, had written A Time To Remember, a fictionalized account of the Klein’s-Ohrbach’s strikes, that had won favorable reviews in the New York Times, the New Republic, and other major publications around the country.  Her novel had won the union tremendous attention and acclaim, and had strongly emphasized the links between the unions’ struggles and other workers’ struggles.  One worker, Zugsmith writes, came to the conclusion that “a victory for them would be a victory for workers in all department stores, for all white-collar workers, for the labor movement as a whole.”  Her presence at the Carnival, coming as it did a couple of years after the publication of A Time To Remember, was an unofficial endorsement of this novel and this position: like Zugsmith’s fictional worker, the union leaders now believed their struggle was indeed for the labor movement as a whole. [15]

Like Zugsmith, Carnival guest-of-honor Ruth McKenney was an important figure in the Popular Front.  Although she is now best known as the writer of the stories that eventually were collected as My Sister Eileen (among other things the basis for the Bernstein musical Wonderful Town), at the time of the Carnival McKenney was also winning acclaim for Industrial Valley, her nonfictional account of the Akron sit-down strikes.  In 1939, the year of the Carnival, the American Writers Congress awarded McKenney honorable mention in its annual contest for nonfiction.  Like Zugsmith, McKenney was probably a member of the Communist Party, and was a regular contributor to the Communist literary magazine The New Masses.  By inviting McKenney, the carnival organizers accomplished several goals, most important among them reminding union members that department store workers were not alone in their unionization efforts.  McKenney, the chronicler of the rubber workers, was also a supporter of the department store workers.

Perhaps the most important guest of honor was Mike Quill.  Quill was one of the best-known figures of the New York City labor movement.  The leader of the large, militant, and very progressive Transport Workers Union of America (TWUA), the union of New York City’s transportation workers, Quill spoke regularly on local radio stations and served on the New York City Council in the late 1930s.  Like Zugsmith and McKenney, Quill was closely associated with the Communist Party in the 1930s, although as so often happens in these cases, there has been a great deal of debate about his membership status.  If Quill therefore also served to emphasize the union’s connections to national and international radical struggles, he also emphasized the union’s connections to other local struggles.  Quill’s union was, after all, a New York City union, and the workers he led could be not only ideological allies in a broadly-defined struggle against Fascism, but practical ones in the department store workers’ immediate struggles. [16]

The Counter Carnival, with these guests of honor, in some ways exemplified the department store unions’ cultural programs of the late 1930s.  Like other cultural programs the unions’ organizers initiated in these years—the parties and dances, the boat rides, the song shop, and the lecture series—the Carnival brought workers from all the different stores together as union members in a recreational setting.  In addition, particularly with the guests of honor whom union organizers chose to invite, the Carnival allowed union members and leaders to reinforce the alliances to the city’s radical movement that had proved so valuable in their earlier struggles.

In creating these cultural programs, union leaders were more than mere participants in the Popular Front; they were the creators of one small segment of the Popular Front.  The Popular Front, after all, was essentially a series of networks between different sections of American labor and American radicals. As some historians of communism have always claimed, the Communist Party actively called for and supported the sorts of alliances which department store union leaders formed in the late 1930s, and there was therefore a top-down element to the coalition.  On the other hand, the decision to abide by this policy or not to abide by it, was not made in a vacuum, but was instead made by activists on the ground.  The Popular Front policies reflected Communist Party policies, but organizers in the department store unions adopted the Popular Front as a valuable tool for making this union an integral part of workers’ lives, and as a way to further solidify the unions’ connections to other political and social movements of the day.  Communist Party policy is simply not a sufficient explanation for the outgrowth of cultural programs in the department store unions. [17]

How To Use A Popular Front: The Gimbel’s Strike

Gimbel’s was in many respects the last place in the world where a massive strike should have taken place in 1941.  For one thing, Gimbel’s management was relatively pro-union.  Louis Broido, the vice-president in charge of employee relations at Gimbel’s, was one of the more outspoken supporters of unionization in the department stores, arguing that unionization could potentially bring stability to stores like Gimbel’s surrounded by disruption on all sides.  As a result, Broido had extremely good relations with union leaders, especially Samuel Wolchok, the national president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the CIO union of which the department store unions were a part; Wolchok, like Broido, believed that unions could have a stabilizing influence on the retail industry.  For another thing, the union at Gimbel’s, despite management’s relatively cordial attitude, was fairly weak.  The union had not even made any inroads into the huge office division within the store for the three years of its existence. [18]

Despite this, the Gimbel’s strike of 1941 was one of the most important events in the history of retail workers in America.  It demonstrated, as nothing else in the unions’ history had, the importance of the unions’ cultural programs of the late 1930s.  It also marked the culmination of the department store unions’ power, and, somewhat ironically, the beginning of an internal struggle that would eventually destroy the RWDSU and, in addition, the possibility of strong retail workers’ unions in America.

In many respects, the productive working relationship between Samuel Wolchok and Louis Broido was the cause of the strike.  On August 8, 1941, Samuel Wolchok went into negotiations at Gimbel’s to demand a $2/day wage increase and a 40-hour work week.  The negotiations went surprisingly well: Broido offered a 42-hour work week accompanied by a raise of $1.50 a day, and Wolchok accepted, taking the contract back to the workers for their approval.

In retrospect, Wolchok made a serious mistake in accepting Broido’s offer after only a few days’ negotiations, and a second serious mistake in not consulting with local union organizers before doing so.  The forty-hour week was simply too important a cause for Wolchok to have given up so easily; and Wolchok knew this.  In an article in Business Week two years earlier, Wolchok had boldly announced his desire and determination “to extend [the 40-hour, 5-day week] to all eastern department stores.”  On August 18, William Michelson, the leader of Gimbel’s Local 2 and one of the engineers of the Popular Front within the union, called for a strike, demanding the 40-hour week, and on August 25, Local 2 officially voted to follow Michelson’s recommendation and strike. [19]

Despite the fact that the workers had followed Michelson in rejecting his settlement, Wolchok nonetheless moved to officially support the strike.  To Broido, on the other hand, the Gimbel’s strike was evidence that his position on unionism and stability had been fundamentally incorrect.  The local leaders could smash Wolchok’s promised stability whenever they chose to do so.  Broido and the other Gimbel’s managers therefore decided to keep the store open throughout the strike, having managers double as salespeople and using what few scabs there were to try to service any customers brave enough to cross the 1500 workers who walked the picket line. [20]

The 1500 workers represented the largest single strike of retail workers in New York City, but there were also new obstacles which the strikers had to face.  Customers at Gimbel’s, for instance, were far different than customers at the stores where workers had previously struck.  At downscale retail stores like Klein’s, Ohrbach’s, May’s, and even the five-and-dime stores, customers frequently came from working-class neighborhoods, and shared ethnic as well as neighborhood ties to the strikers.  At Gimbel’s, these ties were non-existent.  Many workers at Gimbel’s and other upscale stores came from the same neighborhoods as the workers at the downscale stores, but most Gimbel’s customers did not.  In the 1930s and 1940s, Gimbel’s was strictly an upscale store, intended for wealthy people as well as middle-class people with pretensions of being wealthy.  The poor, for the most part, shopped elsewhere.

As a result, most Gimbel’s customers viewed themselves as completely separate from the strikers, with little or no factors binding them together.  Some customers bitterly attacked the strikers in letters to New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.  One Gimbel’s customer named R.T. Harnie who described herself as “a gray-haired woman of seventy” wrote to LaGuardia complaining vaguely of the “disgraceful treatment” at the hands of the picketers.  Another Gimbel’s customer, Miss E.T. Newell, complained that the picketers “march with a constant roar all day.  Could not this come under nuisances—city noises—which you have done so much to eliminate?”  Still another customer wrote of her annoyance at the amount of traffic the picketers caused, complaining that “at times it is impossible  . . . to walk on the sidewalks along the entrances” to Gimbel’s.  And one Gimbel’s customer even went so far as to suggest that because it was an election year, the police—under LaGuardia’s orders—were being too lenient when dealing with the strikers. [21]

The strikers returned the animosity, not surprising considering the high levels of resentment towards customers that many workers expressed.  In fact, strikers’ attacks on customers were even more violent than their attacks on store managers and scabs: on one occasion, striker Helen Jacobson splashed a customer’s clothing with bright red ink, and was immediately arrested for assault.  Most strikers, however, were more circumspect in their attacks on customers.  At one point, for instance, workers resorted to setting a box of white mice free in the store.  On another occasion, to the great frustration of Gimbel’s managers and customers alike, the strikers somehow managed to smuggle a flock of pigeons into the store.  In what was almost certainly the most dangerous moment of the strike, someone even released a swarm of bees into the store, though this seems more likely to have been the act of an agent provocateur rather than a striker, and no union member was ever arrested for it. [22]

Clearly, in this environment, customers would not immediately emerge as important supporters of the strike.  Instead, strikers would have to find allies elsewhere.  And, while the eight-hour day at Gimbel’s might not automatically attract droves of allies, the union’s participation in the Popular Front allowed the union to find a number of extremely powerful allies.  Annette Rubinstein, at the time a high school principal and local political activist, was greatly intrigued at the news of the strike, because she had recently read Leane Zugsmith’s A Time To Remember and viewed this strike as a chance to see firsthand the actions that Zugsmith described.  It was Rubinstein’s suggestion to invite charge customers to come to a union-sponsored tea, and she regarded the two-hundred women who showed up as a notable victory for the union, pointing out that the customers who had come had actually made a sizable donation to the strike fund, and that one of the customers had actually agreed to pay for the tea.

Perhaps the most important ally of the strikers was Mike Quill.  Not only did workers from Quill’s TWU come and march the picket line with the strikers, but together with the Gimbel’s strikers, TWU members took the picket line inside Gimbel’s, taking over the store for a day, and shutting down business.  It was one of the most dramatic moments in the union’s history: they had now proven not only that they could shut down the great upscale stores, but that they could literally take possession of these stores if managers did not comply with workers’ demands. [23]

Louis Broido and other managers at Gimbel’s were quick to realize just how serious their miscalculation was.  Broido may have thought, before the strike, that the union was a means to control workers.  During the strike, however, he learned differently.  As he later described it during a hearing on radicalism in the department store unions, the workers

did everything possible which a group of young impassioned people interested in themselves and their movement would do to make the employer understand that they expected to use the forces of . . . mass movement to gain their end. . . . The line between that mass demonstration . . . and civil commotion, the line between that mass demonstration and revolutionary mass action, is so fine that nobody can say where one starts and the other stops.

Broido might decry the sorts of actions that workers adopted during the Gimbel’s strike, but he could not afford to ignore how effective these actions were.  Customers, under attack from the strikers when they crossed the picket line, increasingly avoided the store, and the Christmas shopping season was only weeks away.  Broido and other store managers had to make a decision, and they had to do so quickly.  The strikers, with the powerful allies assembled through their cultural programs, had now emerged victorious. [24]

With local representatives now present at the negotiations, Broido granted the workers the 40-hour week, as well as granting a small salary increase for nearly all full-time employees.  The alliances forged through the Popular Front had won workers at Gimbel’s the eight-hour day. [25]


In 1999, Tim Robbins wrote, produced, and directed the only film so far made about the Popular Front in America.  Robbins’s The Cradle Will Rock stands as a powerful monument to a historical moment when writers, artists, actors, and musicians strongly placed their support behind the cause of unionization.  Although the cast was stellar, with an array of talent including Hank Azaria, Ruben Blades, Joan Cusack, John Cusack, Cary Elwes, Cherry Jones, Angus Macfadyen, Bill Murray, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, John Turturro, and Emily Watson, and generally critics enjoyed the film, it utterly failed to find an audience, closing after making back less than ten percent of its $32 million budget.

Perhaps the most amazing moment of Robbins’s The Cradle Will Rock is an exchange between Hank Azaria, playing writer-composer Marc Blitzstein, and Angus MacFadyen, playing Orson Welles, who had recently been assigned to direct Blitzstein’s musical, also titled The Cradle Will Rock:

Welles: Tell me, are you a Communist?...Marc, are you a Red?

Blitzstein: Officially, no.  I am a homosexual and that excludes me from membership in the party.  I am faithful to the ideals of the party.

Welles: I am faithful to the party of ideals.

It is a rather odd and unnecessary exchange, especially considering that it very likely never took place.  If it did, Blitzstein lied; he was a member of the Communist Party until 1949. [26]

What Robbins did by tossing in these lines of dialogue was to establish to the satisfaction of the viewers that the Popular Front was not a Communist conspiracy, that it was, in fact, fun-loving radicals with local concerns, not Russian-inspired Communists, who were leading the radical artistic and political movements of the 1930s.

Despite this contention—one that arguably has some support from Michael Denning’s critically important Cultural Front—local concerns only partially explain the Popular Front.  There is no question that the artists and writers of the late 1930s played an important role by producing political art.  But their role went far beyond this.  The art of the 1930s was not only political in its content, but in its function.  The Popular Front provided a way to link political activists together; it allowed people struggling for the freedom of the Scottsboro Boys, for the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, and for union recognition (among many other causes) to unite as participants in a shared cultural movement.

The role of the Communist Party in this phenomenon is unquestionably a complicated one, and Robbins cannot be faulted for avoiding it in his film.  Certainly we cannot adopt the policy, as some earlier historians did, that the Communist Party was solely responsible for the existence of a cultural movement in the late 1930s.  Too many participants in the Popular Front were not particularly close to the Communist Party; Aaron Copland, for instance, by far the most important composer of classical music associated with the Front, had no connection worth mentioning with the Communists in the late 1930s.  At the same time, far too many of the artists involved in Popular Front activities were Communists for us to ignore their role.  Communists played an important role in the Front, but, as Denning has demonstrated, they did not necessarily control the Front. [27]

In New York City’s department stores, the results of the Popular Front, of the unification of workers and radicals around culture, were unquestionably positive ones.  Not only did the workers win lasting unions at New York City’s department stores (a rarity among retail workers outside grocery stores), but they won some of the best contracts in retail workers’ history, including—during the Gimbel’s strike—arguably the most important historical demand of American workers, the eight-hour day.

[1] For their assistance on the material in this article, I would like to thank Thomas Bender, Adam Green, Robin Kelley, Molly Nolan, and especially Daniel Walkowitz.

[2] For the money spent on security versus the money lost to shoplifting, see “1250 Organizer,” [First Issue - Undated], 1, “DSEU (CIO) - Local 1250 - 1250 Organizer” Folder, DSSO Papers

[3] For the boundaries of the garment district (really multiple districts, with separate but somewhat overlapping areas for men’s clothing and women’s clothing) see “Job Rush Held Bar To Building Strike,” New York Times (November 18, 1934), 26.  For a good overview of the industrial/economic history of the neighborhood, including the migration of the various businesses into the garment district, see “Business Centers Well Established,” New York Times (November 8, 1931), RE1.  For the guards’ protest, see “400 Strike Guards Clamor For Wages,” New York Times (November 6, 1934), 35.  For other incidents, see “Bystander Shot In Strike Clash,” New York Times (August 29, 1935), 13, “Service Strike Set for 20,000 Workers,” New York Times (January 28, 1936), 2, and “Service Workers Quit,” New York Times (May 20, 1937), 12.  For the Communists in the garment district, including the complete route of their march, see “May Day Parades Arouse Retailers,” New York Times (April 25, 1935), 23.

[4] For the history of the New York City strikes, see Opler, “For All White-Collar Workers: The Possibilities of Radicalism in New York City’s Department Store Unions, 1934-1953,” Ph.D. Thesis, New York University, 2003, p. 92-113.  For the Detroit strikes, see Frank, Dana, “Girl Strikers Occupy Chain Store, Win Big: The Detroit Woolworth’s Strike of 1937,” in Howard Zinn, Dana Frank, and Robin D.G. Kelley, Three Strikes: Miners, Musicians, Salesgirls, and the Fighting Spirit of Labor’s Last Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 57-118.

[5] For the FLSA and retail workers, see “Staff Report to the Subcommittee on Labor of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare (United States Senate) on Retail Establishments and the Fair Labor Standards Act,” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1956), 17. 

[6] Technially, the dating of the Front is far more complicated than this.  From 1935 to 1937, the Communist Party (CP) supported the Popular Front, which was essentially a coalition between Communists and Socialists; and from December 1937 to 1939, the line expanded to include the Democratic Party, and is often called the Democratic Front.  However, within the department store unions, these differences seem to be somewhat less important; there the organizers worked to create a coalition of support and a cultural dimension to the union’s efforts from 1937 all the way through 1941.  I have therefore used the Popular Front not in its most technical sense, but rather in the more colloquial sense, to refer to the radical coalitions formed between the end of the Third Period in 1935 and the beginning of World War II.

[7] For Zugsmith on the picket lines, see “125 Pickets Seized at Ohrbach Store,” The New York Times (February 17, 1935), and “10 to Face Court Today For Mass Picket Line Before Ohrbach Store,” Daily Worker (January 28, 1935), “Clippings,” Department Store Strikes and Organizing in the 1930s Collection; Tamiment Library, New York University; see also Jay Martin, Nathanael West: The Art of His Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), 255-57.  For the Artists’ League, see Testimony of Thomas A. Swift (rep., Downtown Brooklyn Association), Joint Legislative Committee on Industrial and Labor Conditions, Public Hearing on Cross-Picketing (New York, NY; December 5, 1941) [hereafter Cross-Picketing Hearing], 104.  For the League of Women Shoppers, see for example, League of Women Shoppers, Letter to Fiorello LaGuardia, dated February 14, 1936), 1, LaGuardia Papers, Reel 230

[8] Jane Spadavecchio interview; the average salary of $15 a week is from Beth McHenry, “Worker Tires, Macy’s Fires,” Daily Worker (March 6, 1937), 7.  While he does not mention the upstate vacation house, Macy’s worker and later union organizer Charles E. Boyd confirms the Thanksgiving turkey; see Boyd, “Early Years,” 2.  For the Greater New York Department Store Baseball League, see “President of O. And P. League Dead,” New York Times (May 30, 1910), 13.

[9] Leach, Land of Desire, 335.  During the Depression, managers organized store-sponsored parades in other cities across the country; see Alvin Rosensweet, “Parading into Prosperity,” Dry Goods Economist (June 1935), 22.

[10] Lizabeth Cohen, Making A New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 340-349.

[11] “Bloomingdale Girls’ Team Breaks Jinx,” and “Upsets Mark Hoop League,” The CIO News, Retail Edition (February 29, 1940), 9.  For the swimming programs, see “Gala Opening - Swim-Gym” Flyer, Dated October 11 (no year given), “Department Store Employees’ Union (CIO) - Local 1250” Folder, DSSO Papers.

[12] See “Gimbel Union’s New Library Proves Popular” and “Forum Discusses Marriage,” CIO News - Retail Edition (February 29, 1940), 9; for the parties, and choral group see “Organizing On A Spree,” 1250 Organizer (First Issue, Undated), 1, Department Store Employees Union (CIO) Local 1250 - 1250 Organizer Folder,” DSSO Papers.  Both quotes are taken from “Organizing on a Spree.”

[13] “Sing And Be Happy” Booklet, printed by Local 1250 Song Shop, Undated, “Department Store Employees Union - Local 1250 (no indication AFL or CIO)” folder, DSSO Papers; though undated, the address of Local 1250’s offices makes it likely that this booklet was printed during the CIO years.

[14] For Vallee’s performance, see “Come To Our Grand Victory Ball” Flyer (dated Saturday, May 8 [1937?]), “Department Store Employees Union (no affiliation indicated)” Folder, DSSO Papers.

[15] Zugsmith, A Time To Remember (New York: Random House, 1936), 251.

[16] For the importance of A Time to Remember, see Annette Rubinstein interview.  For favorable reviews of Zugsmith’s work, see B.E. Bettinger, review of A Time To Remember, by Leane Zugsmith, The New Republic (September 16, 1936), 165; Alfred Kazin, review of A Time To Remember, The New York Times Book Review  (September 13, 1936), 5; and Fanny Butcher, review of A Time To Remember, Chicago Daily Tribune (September 12, 1936), 14.  For biographical information on McKenney, see Mari Jo Buhle, “Ruth McKenney,” in Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas, Encyclopedia of the American Left (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 461-2.  For Quill, see Joe Doyle, “Mike Quill,” in Buhle, Buhle, and Georgakas, Encyclopedia of the American Left, 619-20.

[17] There has been, needless to say, a lot of debate around the history of communism in America.  The best representation of this debate remains the exchange in the New York Review of Books between Theodore Draper, one of the founders of the top-down theory of communism, and several younger scholars; see Theodore Draper, “American Communism Revisited,” The New York Review of Books (May 9, 1985), 32-7, and Draper, “The Popular Front Revisited,” The New York Review of Books (May 30, 1985), 44-50; for the responses to Draper, see “Revisiting American Communism: An Exchange,” The New York Review of Books (August 15, 1985), 40-44.

[18] Bea Schwartz, interviewed by Debra Bernhardt, New York, May 14, 1980 and May 17, 1980.  William Michelson interview.  For the connections between Broido and Wolchok, see “Wolchok Honored With Histadrut Dinner,” Retail Wholesale and Department Store Employee (May 1947), 3.

[19] For the beginning of the strike, see “Lewis Is Facing New C.I.O. Revolt,” The New York Times (24 August 1941) p. 19,  and “Gimbel’s Unions Begin Strike”  Daily Worker (26 August 1941), 4.  For Wolchok on the 40-hour week, see “CIO Store Drive,” Business Week (July 26, 1941), 42.

[20] For Broido’s view of the strike as a failure on Wolchok’s part and a double-cross by the local leaders, see Investigation on Communism, Testimony of Louis Broido, 43.  These hearings will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 4.

[21] Letters from Miss M. Dun, Mrs. E.T. Newell, and Miss R.T. Harnie (9 September 1941) to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, in LaGuardia Papers, New York City Municipal Archives, Microfilm Roll 113.

[22] For Helen Jacobson’s actions, see Letter from United Department Store Employees Union of Greater New York to Mayor LaGuardia, LaGuardia Papers, Microfilm Reel 113, 5 September 1941.   See Investigation On Communism, Testimony of Louis Broido, 37, 41; and see “Involved In Strike, Bees Do Boomerang”  The New York Times (7 September 1941), 41.  One curious note which indicates the possibility that the bees were the act of an agent provocateur is that the testimony before the House of Representatives never mentioned the bees’ release into the store.  Every aspect of the story, however, is suspicious: the man who released the bees claimed that the union had hired him, but was unable to identify any individuals; he also failed to explain why he had not simply followed earlier examples and left the bees in a box inside the store instead of releasing them while he was still present and, as a result, getting himself stung and caught.

[23] Annette Rubinstein Interview; Bea Schwartz interview; Abe Rosen, interviewed by Debra Bernhardt, New York, NY, 21 April 1980.

[24] Public hearing on Cross-Picketing Before the New York State Joint Legislative Committee on Industrial and Labor Conditions, New York, NY, December 5, 1941 (New York : Marshall & Berry, 1941), 46-9 (hereafter Cross-Picketing Hearings).

[25] For Broido’s statement, see Public hearing on Cross-Picketing Before the New York State Joint Legislative Committee on Industrial and Labor Conditions, New York, NY, December 5, 1941 (New York: Marshall & Berry, 1941), 46-9 (hereafter Cross-Picketing Hearings).  For the settlement, see Agreement Between Gimbel Brothers, Inc. and CIO, URWDSEA, and Gimbel Local 2, Dated 24 November 1941 (Effective as of 12 September 1941), 15-7, 21-2, Appendix A, in CIO Papers, Collection 1, Box 9, Folder 18.  This minimum wage of $17 a week included the generally lower-paid workers in the employees’ lunchroom, but excluded the also low-paid elevator operators.  It is not known if elevator operators at Gimbel’s, like those at Macy’s, were African American.

[26] Tim Robbins, Cradle Will Rock: The Movie and the Moment (New York: Newmarket Press, 2000), 48.  For Blitzstein and the Communist Party, see The Marc Blitzstein Web Site, at http://www.marcblitzstein.com/pages/life/chapters/life05.htm.

[27] For Denning, see Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the 20th Century (London: Verso, 1996).