Monkey Business in Union Square: A Cultural Analysis of the Klein's-Ohrbach's Strikes of 1934-5

Article excerpt

Introduction: Strike As Drama

Labor historians in recent years have treated strikes as relatively marginal events, prefering instead to focus the cultural worlds and day-to-day lives of working-class people. In comparison to the rich meanings and analysis these "new labor historians" have unearthed in day-to-day life, strikes seem dull events indeed, especially as described by the "old labor history" of John R. Commons and his students. I would argue, as other historians have recently suggested, that strikes are in fact central to working class history, and that by redefining strikes we will be able to make them as rich and complex as any other facet of working-class life. Although the dictionary defines a strike as "a temporary stoppage of [work] in order to bring about compliance with demands," historians can better understand a strike as a cultural act, as a drama which workers use to convey their messages to potential supporters. (1)

The importance of adopting this cultural definition of a strike is that it enables historians to use strikes differently. While strikes-as-work-stoppage force us to dismiss strikes as dull events to be passed over in favor of more revealing passages in working-class life, a cultural definition allows us to look at the messages inherent in the strike-drama. This includes both the messages which the strikers intend to convey, and other messages which we can perceive by close examination of the strike. In this way, we can force strikes to serve as valuable sources for historical information.

Novelist Leane Zugsmith demonstrated the validity of this sort of cultural analysis in a passage from A Time To Remember, her fictionalized account of the strikes which took place at the Klein's and Ohrbach's stores in New York City's Union Square during the winter and early spring of 1934-5. In this passage, Aline, a young woman worker, is about to go onstage during a store-sponsored play performed by store employees. Nervous because she and her fellow workers had voted the night before to go on strike, Aline stops just before she is about to go onstage, goes to her empty dressing room, retrieves a handful of strike leaflets, and then goes onstage. Once on stage, instead of reciting her written lines, Aline proceeds to toss the leaflets out over the audience while making a speech about the strike that will begin the next day. In this brief passage, Aline has taken the boss's stage and stolen it. She has made it, for a moment at least, a vehicle for a worker's message; she has announced the strike by creating a drama. (2)

Aline's fictional actions are potentially full of meanings about the competing messages of employers and employees and the theater as a contested space, but these fictional actions pale in comparison to the real actions of workers during the same strikes at Klein's and Ohrbach's. In this paper, I perform a detailed cultural analysis of the actions taken during the Klein's-Ohrbach's strikes, the strikes Zugsmith addresses in her novel. In the dramas surrounding these strikes, I argue, one can find at least four prominent messages. First, there is clear evidence that the strikers analyzed the Klein's-Ohrbach's strike as a struggle of white-collar workers. Second, the strikers attempted to take advantage of the stores as a contested space between customers and management. Third, the strikers made a similar attempt to take advantage of the contests over Union Square among communists, workers, police, and store owners. Fourth, and last, these strikes demonstrate a complex gender system, which allowed working-class women a relatively large degree of agency.

"For All White-Collar Workers"

In general, retail workers were among the worst-paid workers in Depression-era New York City. The pay for such workers was lowest at downscale stores like Klein's and Ohrbach's, stores which catered primarily to working-class consumers. …