November 18, 2019

1937 shoe worker strike hits milestone

LEWISTON – One of Lewiston-Auburn’s largest, longest and most divisive strikes ended 65 years ago this week, marking the decline of the area’s shoe industry.

Thousands of shoe workers walked off the job on March 25, 1937, demanding higher pay, a shorter workweek, better working conditions and union representation.

After the first month, the dispute turned ugly as police and strikers clashed in the streets. Gov. Lewis Barrows called in the National Guard and a Supreme Court justice later issued an injunction against strikers and jailed strike organizers for violating it.

The walkout ended June 28, 14 weeks after it began. Some strikers who lost jobs to replacement workers never got them back. And as the economy soured, the shoe industry in the Twin Cities began a decline that continued for decades.

Up to that point – the heyday of shoe manufacturing in the area – more than 8,000 workers made 70,000 pairs a day. Auburn, then known as Shoe City, had 14 shops. Lewiston, nicknamed Spindle City for its textiles, had another five.

Today, the figures are just a fraction of their early glory, and the strike, a fading memory.

In the words of one former striker: “Everybody lost.”

Union organizers with the Congress of Industrial Organizations were drawn to the area because wages in Maine were lower than those in Massachusetts and none of the shoe shops was unionized.

The CIO’s advances to sit down with manufacturers were rebuffed, and the decision to strike came at a meeting in which nearly 3,500 workers packed Lewiston City Hall.

As thousands of workers remained idle, shoe manufacturers hired replacements to take their jobs.

The union tried strategies similar to those it had used with success elsewhere, but they just wouldn’t work here, said Richard Condon, a retired history professor at the University of Maine at Farmington.

“The factory owners were better organized here. They had such a strong tradition of the open shop. I think they were a tougher nut to crack,” he said.

Manufacturers tried to revive the Lewiston and Auburn Shoeworkers Protective Association, a locally controlled union started after a failed 1932 shoe strike.

“The manufacturers were all too willing to encourage” LASPA, Condon said, as a means of keeping the CIO out. Ultimately, that’s what happened.

Powers Hapgood, a CIO organizer, sent a telegram to union leader John L. Lewis on April 28: “Loss of our strike not only means blow to rest of organizing in shoe industry but equal loss here of all other industries.”

The CIO voted eight weeks later to end the strike, with organizers saying “it is not our purpose to unnecessarily prolong a condition whereby manufacturers of shoes in Lewiston and Auburn may be unable to reopen their factories or their business be permanently injured.”

But many former strikers had no jobs to return to. Some had been replaced and weren’t welcomed back. Recession had also taken its toll.

“The economy went so far down many of the jobs just weren’t there,” Condon says.

Although the strike failed to achieve its aims, workers made some inroads in the years that followed.

In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set minimum wage and maximum hours. Then, when World War II started, the economy picked up and many people got jobs at shipyards in Bath and Portland.

In 1992, Robert Branham, a Bates College professor, made a documentary of the strike with his students. Called “Roughing the Uppers,” it featured news clips, old black-and-white video footage and interviews with a half-dozen former strikers.

According to the documentary, more than 5 million workers nationwide were involved in almost 10,000 strikes from May 1933 to July 1937.

“I think it’s one of the major strikes in Maine,” says Michael Hillard, an associate professor of economics at the University of Southern Maine. “Its importance really has to do with where it fit with the national movement toward unionization in the 1930s. It came literally right at the peak.”

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