The Road to Insignificance – The Reading Cigarworkers’ Union from 1925 to 1935
By TODD A. ROSENSTOCK
In the book “Schools and Society in the City of Reading,” written by John Peter Lozo in 1938, the following observation was made by the author: “One of the largest unions in 1900 was the cigarmakers’, but the advent of the cigar-making machine reduced their union to insignificance.”
According to the minutes of Cigarworkers Local 236 of Reading, preserved on microfilm in the Labor History Archives at Penn State’s Pattee Library, the above quote is an accurate summation of actuality.
Reading’s 236 was doomed to extinction (as was its big brother, Cigarworkers International) by automation, the replacement of manual skill by a machine. . . the age-old nemesis of the laboring man.
By 1925 membership in Local 236 was already on the decline, which, in large measure, was a reflection of the state of affairs with this trade union nationwide. The gradual eroding of political clout and general interest manifested by rank-and-file members can easily be observed when one examines the aforementioned minutes – particularly during the period from 1925 to 1935.
Prior to 1925 Local 236 had indeed been “one of the largest unions” in the area. It was akin to the Socialist party in Reading and through this connection brought itself into a position of prominence in city and county affairs. Not surprisingly, considering the “socialistic influence,” Local 236 formed the “Commonwealth Cooperative Association” in 1898 and fully incorporated it in 1905. Its purpose was to merchandise cigars made by its union-member affiliates. Headquarters were at 628 Walnut (Reed and Walnut Streets, Reading) for many years – into the 1940’s.
All “co-op” cigars carried the union label and were, of course, hand-made. Proceeds from this enterprise generally went for “political expenses and for the maintenance of Labor Lyceum Hall, contained in the same building used by the Commonwealth Co-operative Association. (On the first floor front was a large room used by the cigarworkers; behind it was a small “social room” for pinochle and the like. Upstairs was the spacious Lyceum Hall where the Socialists held their meetings, as did various union groups when they gathered in large numbers. The third story contained an office for “the organizer.” Other smaller offices on this level were maintained by certain trade unions as a “home base.”
Two of Reading’s most prominent Socialist labor leaders were from Local 236 – Andrew P. Bower, longtime secretary of the union who later became president of the local Federated Trades Council, and J. Henry Stump, manager of the socialistic People’s Printing Company from 1920 (its inception) to 1927. Stump was the only mayor of Reading to serve three terms – elected in 1927, 1935, and 1943. With leaders such as these, Cigarworkers Local 236 was able to participate independently in local affairs and use its connections to good advantage.
Nostalgia buffs portray the 1920’s as glorious and golden years. Not so for cigarworkers. To a fair extent the labor movement entered a period of loss and stagnation. Local 236 and their International – under the American Federation of Labor banner – were not unaffected by the undercurrent of economic change.
Across the nation the tide of Socialism was beginning to recede, in membership and power. In time this was felt in Reading, for country-wide losses would naturally filter down to the local level – and what was detrimental to the Socialists was hardly a plus factor for the cigar-makers and their co-op. (Remember that Socialism grew out of the trade union movement… Socialism did not spawn the trade unions!)
That Reading remained a Socialist stronghold for so long was due in large measure to their successful “track record” – achieved by a leadership that manifested a better than average degree of personal and political integrity. J. Henry Stump’s Socialist victory in a city the size of Reading (at that time) – as late as 1943 – must be considered a major accomplishment, but then many would say folks voted for the man in spite of his political affiliation.
The major worriment, though, in the cigar-making industry here – and elsewhere – in the 1920’s had little direct connection with prevailing economic uncertainty and changes in the political mood of the times. It was the specter of impending mechanization.
Obviously, by the mid -1920’s Local 236 found itself in a position much less secure than it had been a decade earlier, but it was still a viable and visible force on the horizon. Accordingly, they continued their day-to-day business and were still active in a variety of affairs.
.. Action Within the Community…
Occasionally “236” would go on record as taking a stand on a local issue, such as it did on June 28, 1926, when a harsh letter was addressed to the Park Preservation Committee protesting the “proposed erection of a public building in the City Park.” The matter dealt with whether or not to erect a Reading Museum and Art Gallery in Penn Commons to replace the one being removed from the old Boys’ High School, 8th and Washington Streets, Reading. Virtually every organization in the city took a position one way or another. (Most were against the proposal.)
A. P. Bower and Martin L. Wolfs kill, perennial leaders in Local 236, campaigned throughout the city to establish satisfactory facilities for the proper handling of tuberculosis patients. They continued their interest “in the cause” and in this regard they are remembered kindly.
The exact nature of the ties the union had with Rev. Gustav R. Poetter, pastor of St. Mark’s U.C.C. Church (Ritter and Greenwich Streets, Reading), are unknown – but the minutes of August 23, 1926 indicate that John Troxell, education director of the Pennsylvania Federation of Labor, was to speak at a Labor Day meeting to be held at St. Mark’s. And the good Rev. Poetter sent out the invitations. Such cooperation with unions before the inception of the Wagner Act was rate, especially from the religious community.
.. Political Action…
Over the years the local went “on the books” as opposing or favoring bills or candidates at the state or federal level. Such recommendations usually came at the urging of the International or the AFL. In this way the union was no different from unions today.
Typical of their stands…Understandably they strongly opposed the passage of House Bill #8997 (2/7/27) and urged Representative Bushong to vote against House Resolution #9195, The Cuban Parcel Post Bill (12/4/28). Both related to the sending of Cuban cigars to our shores via parcel post, both “died in committee” and thus were never brought to a vote.
They wrote to Congressman Esterly to persuade him to “vote and use his influence in favor of the Wagner Bill #3060,” setting up a system of public employment offices (3/3/31). On William Green’s signed recommendation they petitioned their representatives to support the Wagner-Lewis Unemployment Insurance Bill (4/17/34).
One of the few political candidates they supported had “labor’s approval.” On September 1, 1931 they endorsed the candidacy of James Drew for Supreme Court Judge of Pennsylvania.
.. Aid to Other Unions…
During the hard times organized labor suffered, particularly in the late 1920’s and the 1930’s, Local 236 received calls for aid from striking unions that were AFL affiliated. As might be expected, less aid was granted as time went on – for obvious reasons. Such “turned-down requests” were simply “filed.” Some were not noted as to what specific action was taken – and even when money was given, a dollar-figure was not always recorded.
A sampling of some of the unions that submitted petitions for aid to Local 236 are as follows: the local Stove Mounters’ Union (11/23/25), Furriers Union of greater New York (5/24/26), textile workers of Danville, Virginia (11/12/30), Amalgamated Association – steel workers’ union – 5! (4/7/31). A petition for aid to the West Virginia Coal Miners (7/7/31) was “filed.”
.. Local Representatives Sent…
Local 236 elected men to represent the union at Tobacco Expositions, Trades Councils, and the Pennsylvania F of L at various intervals through-out the period from 1925 to 1935. In the minutes of May 24, 1926 the local’s representative to the Pennsylvania F of L convention read a statement to the effect that the “Federation is stronger now than any time in history.” However, during the extremely dark days of the Depression (1932) the same delegate read a statement noting that although this year’s convention was the smallest ever, it probably was the most constructive and expedient ever held. (No further comment!)
.. Activity Within the International…
The Cigarmakers International periodically sent referendums dealing with suspensions of members, jurisdictional squabbles, and proposed expenditures to all the locals so that “all members” could be involved in the decision-making process. In virtually every case, Local 236 agreed with the stands taken by the International’s hierarchy, which had a way of making its preferences known.
Such was also the case with possible constitutional amendments. Top leadership usually frowned on any change to the status quo – but felt obliged to put proposals “to a vote,” in the interest of “participatory democracy.”
Numerous amendments from the August 1927 convention were considered by Local 236, on November 16, 1927 at Labor Lyceum Hall. The membership rejected all proposed amendments that would . . . change election, impeachment, and appeal procedures of the International…alter the duties of the executive officers and executive board… change the method of amending the constitution . . . amend the process whereby strikes were called.
Although the vote count on these proposed amendments was considerably lower than that achieved during election of officers a half-year earlier, the tallies were occasionally close. Some propositions were defeated by only one or two votes – within Local 236.
No further conventions were conducted during this the time-span being examined, which clearly signifies the weakening status of the International as a whole. Neither the International nor its locals could afford the expenses involved – particularly after the onset of the Depression. The International referred the matter of delaying the convention to the locals on a referendum. The minutes of Local 236 show that such “delaying motions” were approved in May of 1929, 1931, 1933, and 1935.
.. Local 236 Acts…
The demise of this local trade union was approaching at a steady pace. Mechanization was supplanting the individual cigarmaking and little could be done to weaken the trend. The International had no broad-based policy on approach to fight back. This forced locals to take the matter into their own hands.
Beginning in 1925 Local 236 tried to establish a “Bill of Prices” for machine-made cigars, something like a “fair trade” arrangement to maintain price levels. It appears there weren’t many firms where such standards could be imposed locally – even if the union were strong enough to do so, which it was not – and the initial Bill of Prices died quietly.
By the time the Bill of Prices was brought up again on September 12, 1927, the International had already taken a large step backward by allowing the union label to be placed on machine-made cigars that were made by union men. Local 236 had voted to allow this on July 11, 1927.
Indications of the status of 236 by 1929 can be imagined when one considers that their next move was to send letters to local merchants, signed in the name of the International, asking them to handle only union-stamped cigars. This futile move did not strike at the heart of the problem. The union had already agreed as a whole to put their label on machine-made cigars and so, by asking merchants to carry only that which carried the union label, the union did nothing about the actual problem as perceived by most of its members – automation.
In an effort to maintain respectable numbers within each local, a redistricting procedure had taken place (ca. 1930). As a result, Local 236 then included representation from a much greater geographic area which radiated so widely it actually included the city of Lebanon.
Buoyed up by its bolstered ranks, Local 236 drew up a more specific Bill of Prices in April of 1930 and attempted an enforcement procedure. The result was less than a rousing success, it showed the true condition of their bargaining position.
The document, sent to a cigar manufacturer in Lebanon who employed union workers, was prefaced by a declaration stating that the Bill was beneficial to both sides. It further noted that the only reason the local originated the document was to counteract the competition of machine-made cigars and the high-pressure tactics of larger companies.
The manufacturer, probably somewhat nonplussed by the logic being proffered, sent Local 236 a polite note, which was read into the minutes. It implied the Bill of Prices was more of less totally out of line and that if such wage levels were imposed, prices would naturally rise and some jobs might actually be lost. Adding a “punch below the belt” to what would have been a tolerable rebuff had the letter ended there, the communication was co-signed by the factory owner and his manufactory’s union representatives, members of Local 236! Obviously solidarity was no longer the name of the game.
In 1931 the International was forced to reduce its death benefits from $350 to $300. The prevailing situation economically was bleak. Having work of any kind seemed to be a major goal for many. Accordingly, Local 236 assumed a relatively low profile and busied itself with “routine matters,” for the most part.
In its final act of significance, within the period being considered, Local 236 again set up a Bill of Prices on May 1, 1932, which was sent out to employers. It was prefaced by the same introduction originated for the 1930 document sent to Lebanon. But one additional stipulation was attached: “All wages must be paid weekly and in cash.”
This time the union leaders received no carefully prepared rebuttals to their demands. They simply received no replies at all.
Obviously, Reading Cigarworkers Local 236 reached the end of the line as a force to be reckoned with – a victim of the harsh realities of mechanization and a Depression that combined to leave them powerless in an area where once they held considerable sway.
This was a period that witnessed great changes within the labor movement, particularly in the swing away from highly specialized craft amalgams to broad-based industrial unions.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 1978 issue of The Historical Review of Berks County.