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Charlotte Graham-- A Texas Labor Legend
Charlotte Graham is on the left
A scene in a Dallas dressmaking factory in 1935.
Charlotte Graham had locked herself in the bathroom for 20 minutes and told the floor lady that if the Boss sticks his head in the door, “I’m going to hit him with this chair.”
Boss to Charlotte Graham, ”Are you trying to make a fool out of me?”
Charlotte to Boss, ”No! You made a fool out of yourself when you passed a note around that said no one could go to the bathroom. Why don’t you look under Lisa’s table to see what a stupid rule you made?”
The boss backed down.
It was rare occasion in 1935 when a Boss backed down.
Charlotte Graham, at the time, was not a member of a labor union when she pulled off her shop floor action. She could have been fired and she would have had no recourse, no matter how stupid her boss was. Any other job she could have gotten in Dallas would not have been any better.
Again…this was in 1935. It is hard to believe that workers were treated so shabbily. But they were.
Graham worked for Justin McCarty Manufacturing, one of the many corporations manufacturing dresses in Dallas. The dressmaking industry was a large and politically powerful employer in the city. The dressmaking companies had an association—the Texas Dress Manufacturers Association—a sort of a corporate union among themselves, but they didn’t want the workers to have a labor union.
The ready-made clothing industry was big business in Texas. Companies such as Finesilver Manufacturing Company (1897, San Antonio), Lorch Manufacturing Company (1909, Dallas), Farah (1920, El Paso), Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Company (1922, Fort Worth), Juvenile Manufacturing Company, now Santone Industries (1923, San Antonio), and the Haggar Company (1926, Dallas) produced men's work clothes and pants, ladies' cotton dresses, and children's play clothes.
During the 1930s such Dallas companies as Nardis, Donovan, Marcy Lee and Justin McCarty capitalized on the marketability of the low-cost cotton house dress and produced new and distinctive lines of ready-made sportswear, especially ladies slacks, for national consumption.
Texas experienced this huge influx because companies fled the North after the success of unionized labor in organizing the work force. In the case of dressmaking, the union was the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the ILGWU.
The Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s had a strategy to counter this flight…Operation Dixie. The CIO poured a fair amount of money and talent into the effort to unionize the South in the 1930s. FDR had effectively said that workers had a right to join unions. Workers adored FDR and they took it as encouragement to join a union. The huge 1934 Textile strike in South Carolina was part of that effort. It failed. In Texas, Operation Dixie was also not terribly successful at first.
Charlotte was a grassroots activist. She just thought that standing up to a bully of a boss was the right thing to do. She was eventually recognized as the talented organizer that she was and, after the failure of the general strike in Dallas, was hired by the ILGWU to organize in Los Angeles, in D.C., and ultimately back in Texas after the war.
Charlotte Graham is one of the stars in the PHIT documentary “Talkin’ Union.” That documentary, made in 1978, followed the lives of three women labor organizers in 1930s Texas. Charlotte, who was a leader in ILG in Dallas, Olivia Rawls, an African American labor and civil rights organizer, and Alberta Snid, who, as a child participated in the Pecan Sheller’s Strike in San Antonio.
For Labor Day, we are highlighting and reminding readers of the memorable lives of labor organizers in Texas, a group that is often ignored in history books. Especially ignored have been women labor organizers.
Charlotte Graham was a leader in the general dressmakers strike of 1935. One of twelve founders of a Dallas "sewing circle" that affiliated with the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union in 1935, she remained active in union affairs for more than forty years. During the ILGWU's ten-month 1935 Dallas strike, the workers called for union recognition, increased wages, and the elimination of workplace abuses like kickbacks to foremen and mandatory work "off the clock.” The Dressmakers corporate association called in the Dallas police. Police jailed Charlotte Graham fifty-four times.
The most notorious, and one most covered event in the newspaper was a strike riot on August 7, 1935, during which ten female strikebreakers were attacked and stripped of some or all of their clothing. The “stripping party” made news around the world. Duncan was still irritated, 40 years later when the PHIT interview was conducted, that the boss made the scabs buy their own replacement clothing. They had just ran the gauntlet just to get to work for the uncaring boss. And the uncaring boss charged them market prices.
That strike failed. Some blamed it on the lack of support from the International, but Charlotte always felt it was because they had moved too quickly, that they didn’t properly build their organization before calling for a general strike.
For whatever reason, despite international coverage of the strike, it was called off after one year and one day. Blacklisted in Dallas, Charlotte was offered a job in Los Angeles. She wanted to work in a union shop before going on staff, so suffered through being thought a scab for two weeks before being accepted into the union.
Meyer Perlstein hired Duncan as an organizer. One reason was she was great. Another was that Perlstein liked to hire women as organizers because he could pay them less than male organizers.
Ahh…the intersectionality of oppression. We didn’t even know it was a word back in the 70s when this interview was conducted, but the concept was certainly obvious to anyone who paid attention and listened to stories of the older union activists.
Graham became International VP. But was mad because there could only be one woman and one African-American on the Board.
She battled for fairness on the shop floor and in the unions, and anywhere she could.
Probably not unique, but we found her story to be feisty, and combative and full of concern for her fellow workers.
A True Labor Legend of Texas