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“Girls, We Can’t Lose!”: In 1930s St Louis, Black Women Workers Went on Strike and Won

During the Great Depression, St. Louis's Funsten Nut Factory was racially divided. But Black workers went on strike — and got their white coworkers to join them.

The Funsten Nut Strike is little-known, but it deserves to go down in the history of Midwestern labor militancy alongside the 1877 general strike. As Keona Ervin notes in her book, Gateway to Equality: Black Women and the Struggle for Economic Justice in St. Louis:

Newspapers in and outside of the Gateway City [St. Louis] covered the episode, prominent local leaders weighed in or became involved, and the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) used the strike as a moment to mark the urban Midwest as a new hotbed for radical labor politics spearheaded by black working women.

The July Riot

During the Great Depression, St Louis’s unemployment shot through the roof. Overall joblessness jumped from 9 to 30 percent. Black workers took the first and most severe cuts, with 70 percent of the black workforce becoming either unemployed or severely underemployed.

But 1930s St Louis was also rich with radicalism. Both the Communist and the Anarchist were nationally circulating newspapers published in St Louis. So was Frank O’Hare’s National Rip-Saw (later Social Revolution), which served as an intellectual clearinghouse for Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party. Globetrotter Publishing House turned out radical pamphlets with titles like “Women Under Capitalism,” “Socialism for the Farmer,” and “Socialism and Faith in Practice.”

“I found Bohemia on the Banks of the Mississippi,” socialist writer Jack Conroy said of the city’s radical culture, informed in large part by the values of Germans who’d immigrated there in the wake of the 1848 revolutions.

St Louis in the 1930s was also home to several organizations that served as progenitors to the civil rights movement, as documented in historian Walter Johnson’s book The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States. For example, the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, briefly led by socialist poet Langston Hughes, brought together “women and men, Black and white, communists who sought to join the struggle for racial and economic justice in the United States to the global struggle against capitalism and colonialism.” The League became the first in a series of organizations building toward St Louis’s Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION).

“In St. Louis,” Johnson writes, “the legal struggle against Jim Crow tapped into a deeper and more radical history of grassroots organizing and direct action led by Black workers, especially Black women, and by communists.”