Ben Gold - Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union - Secretary-Treasurer

Secretary-Treasurer

As chief strategist as well as secretary-treasurer for the Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union (NTWIU), Ben Gold pursued an aggressive and militant policy of collective bargaining. The formation of the union was inauspicious: Within the year the Great Depression began, leading to thousands of layoffs in the fur industry and strong downward pressure on wages. But even as early as February 1929, as the economy slid toward depression, Hyman and Gold were announcing a series of strikes designed to raise wages. The new union's first strike occurred in the garment industry in February 1929. A second strike in the New York City's fur industry occurred in June 1929, as NTWIU sought to organize AFL-affiliated locals of fur workers into the breakaway union. With nearly all the city's fur workers already in the NTWIU, however, Gold made little headway against the anti-communist AFL locals. Meanwhile, press reports implied that most of the city's fur workers belonged to the AFL, inverting the true situation. On occasion, violence broke out between the two groups. The AFL also sought to strip the NTWIU's New York City locals of the right to use the phrase "fur workers" in their name.

As the internecine union struggles continued, Gold led strikes in both the garment and fur industries. Sporadic violence also broke out during these events. More than 3,500 union members struck for shorter working hours and higher wages on June 17, 1931, collective bargaining goals which were considered madness by nearly all labor leaders. Yet, Gold won an increase in working hours, leading to a guaranteed 40-hour work week well as increased pay—an achievement important in the establishment of the standard American work week. In August 1932, Gold won yet another agreement retaining the union's work-week and pay goals in the fur industry despite the worsening depression. The union also launched an assault on sweatshop conditions in the garment industry in early 1933, an effort the AFL-led Joint Council labeled communistic.

Battles with the AFL-led Joint Council continued to occupy much of Gold's time. The stridently anti-communist labor leader, Matthew Woll, had been placed in charge of a three-person committee of AFL Executive Council members charged with assisting the IFWU and breaking the NTWIU. Woll and the two other council members funneled funds and staff into the IFWU and assisted the IFWU in strategizing ways to win back the loyalty of the majority of fur workers in New York City. Violence broke out when AFL supporters stormed NTWIU offices in April 1933. Gold, leading the fur workers' division of the NTWIU, led a series of counter-protests and marches through the fur district in May and June 1933. The AFL also continued to work closely with the New York City police, providing law enforcement officials with information on dates, times and places Gold's union would strike or protest and pushing hard for a strong police response to intimidate the communist-led union. In July, police clashed repeatedly with marching workers led personally by Gold, leading to a number of arrests and hundreds of worker injuries. In one case, police on horseback charged at a full gallop into a peaceful march on July 5, 1933. Despite the police violence and opposition of the AFL, the "dynamic leadership of Communist Ben Gold" helped the fur workers in 1933 to salvage a 35-hour work week and win an increase in pay from $38 to $50 a week.

When the Communist Party formed the Trade Union Unity League in late August 1929, Gold affiliated the NTWIU with the umbrella labor group. The League was shuttered in 1935 when the Communist Party abandoned its strategy of dual unionism and "boring from within" in favor of the Popular Front.

Gold also worked hard to integrate the NTWIU. While other unions actively discriminated against African Americans and other minorities or ignored the issue of race, Gold encouraged a bottom-up attack on racism. He actively involved members in "trials" of union members who had used racist language or engaged in discriminatory behavior, and his efforts were largely successful in weeding racism out of the union.

Meanwhile, Gold also was heavily involved in writing the "Fur Code." The National Industrial Recovery Act, enacted on June 16, 1933, established the National Recovery Administration and authorized the agency to establish voluntary agreements within each industry regulating working hours, pay rates, and prices. Hundreds of industry codes were created, including a code governing the fur industry. Gold was appointed to the panel crafting the Fur Industry Code, and on July 21, 1933, the panel established a preliminary "blanket code" providing a 40-hour week and a minimum wage of $14 a week (about $216 a week in 2008 inflation-adjusted dollars).

In late 1933, Gold served a brief prison sentence after having been arrested for participating in a hunger march in Wilmington, Delaware. Hunger marches had been occurring throughout the United States since 1931. Catholic social activist Dorothy Day herself encouraged Gold to participate in a march from New York City to Washington, D.C. Gold was one of 315 marchers who left New York City on November 29, 1932, bound for Washington. The marchers reached Wilmington on December 2, their number having increased by several hundred. Their permit to march in the city was withdrawn. That night, the police herded most of the marchers into a warehouse downtown, but Gold, most of the women and most of the marchers from New England stayed in a rented church two blocks away. That night, the marchers at the church were refused permission to hold a meeting in the street, so they held it on the church steps. When the police tried to stop the meeting, the marchers resisted. The police began beating the people listening to the speaker, and the marchers fled into the church and barricaded the doors. The police fired tear gas through the windows of the building, then broke down the doors and entered the building with weapons drawn. The marchers resisted by hurling chairs at the police, but were beaten and gassed repeatedly until subdued. Twenty-three marchers, including Gold, were arrested. Four police and three marchers were hospitalized. Gold was convicted of incitement to riot, and served a brief prison term in Wilmington in late 1933 and early 1934. Gold participated in additional hunger marches in 1933 and 1934, and was arrested again in Albany, New York, in late October 1934.

Gold's battles with the AFL also continued in 1934. Joint Board and Joint Council supporters fought with fists, bricks and clubs in January 1934. But the AFL group continued to shrink as the Great Depression worsened, and IFWU leaders feared for the survival of their union. To forestall any peace talks, AFL President Green launched a major initiative to drive communists and communist sympathizers out of all AFL-affiliated local, national and international unions. AFL accusations against Gold and his union also continued.

In 1934 and 1935, Gold led the garment and fur workers in two successful strikes which propelled his union into a merger with the IFWU. The first was week-long strike by 4,000 fur workers in late August 1934, which led to additional wage increases and stricter enforcement of contract provisions. The second was a strike by 10,000 garment workers in April 1935 which led to a contract guaranteeing a minimum weekly wage.

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