Charleston’s Cigar Factory strike revealed the potential for at least some collaboration across race and gender divisions in labor activism and civil rights struggles. The modest gains made in the strike signaled a sense of hope for greater political, civil rights, and labor changes on a local, state, and national level. In the years immediately following the strike, Cigar Factory union members, including African American strikers Lillie Mae Doster, Marie Hodges, Delphine Brown, Lucille Simmons, and Isaiah Bennett, became involved in various forms of progressive labor and civil rights activism. In 1947, some of these union members attended a workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. Two members of Charleston’s Local 15, Anna Lee Bonneau and Evelyn Risher, taught Highlander co-founder Zilphia Horton the song that Lucille Simmons and others sang throughout the strike—“We Will Overcome. Horton altered the lyrics and folk singer Pete Seeger later popularized this song as “We Shall Overcome.” The protest song of Charleston’s Cigar Factory Strike in the 1940s became the anthem of the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
In South Carolina, labor issues and politics also came together through the formation of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) in the 1940s. African American journalist and civil rights activist John H. McCray organized the PDP in 1944 to compel South Carolina’s Democratic Party to include African Americans after the Supreme Court ruled in Smith v. Allwright to abolish racially exclusive primaries. McCray was also the editor and owner of a black newspaper in Charleston, the Lighthouse and Informer. As PDP founder and state director of the Voter Registration Action Center, McCray used community and media outreach to help to organize approximately forty local voter registration branches, including one in Charleston. In 1947 and 1948, Local 15 promoted McCray’s cause in the Lowcountry region surrounding Charleston by launching voter drives that resulted in the registration of numerous black voters.
In the years following the strike, interracial coalitions became more difficult to generate or sustain. The national crusade against communism undermined progressive politics across the country, especially in the South. In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act required union leaders to sign non-communist affidavits for their unions to receive NLRB protection. Moreover, the Act prohibited closed union shops, and let states establish right-to-work laws. These new laws meant that employers could hire non-unionized workers, and unionized workers were limited in their strike activities while under a union contract. Starting in 1954, as part of the South Carolina Code of Law Title 41, South Carolina became a right-to-work state.
Anti-communism efforts outside and within the FTA-CIO weakened Local 15 activities in Charleston. In the 1940s and 50s, the federal government’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) held hearings investigating subversive organizations, including labor unions. The Communist Party ties of national FTA president Don Henderson, Local 15 president Reuel Stanfield, and other FTA officials led to a HUAC hearing. The FTA became publicly synonymous with communism, and the CIO decided to expel the FTA from its ranks. Stanfield moved to Ohio to begin union work in the late 1940s. In Charleston, Local 15 members found a new home in the Distributive, Processing, Office Workers of America (DPO); a CIO union based in New York. The DPO absorbed the ranks of purged unions, and retained an emphasis on supporting skilled and unskilled workers equally. Many of the Cigar Factory’s predominantly African American workers remained committed to Local 15, which was a significant feat considering that the all-white male machinists’ union, the AFL-sponsored Tobacco Workers International Union (TWIU) Local 257, consistently received the support of Cigar Factory management. In the years following the strike, the Factory’s vote for unions consistently resulted in a win for Local 15 over Local 257.
Some union alliances across racial divisions did appear to persist into the early 1950s. In 1952, Local 15 went into arbitration with Charleston’s Cigar Factory management for improved health benefits and higher pay, and management acquiesced. Workers received retroactive benefits for sick leave, with a raise from eight dollars a week to ten dollars. In addition, union agents could obtain leave to attend national union meetings and shop stewards were allowed a voice in employer-employee arbitration. Workers also received mandatory five-minute rest breaks in the morning and evening shifts. Finally, this arbitration led to black employees finally being able to access mechanic jobs based on their merit.
Still, charges of anti-communism followed the DPO-CIO as well. Because national DPO union officials refused to sign an anti-communist affidavit in June 1952, its national leaders were ousted in national union elections. By 1954, the DPO and Local 15 officially merged with the Retail, Workers, and Department Store Union (RWDSU).
With the anti-communist fervor of McCarthyism, southern segregationist politicians such as Strom Thurmond and James Eastland continually equated labor union activism with subversive, anti-American actions. They argued that labor unions promoted racial equality as a communist tool to destroy American business and capitalism. As a result, interracial cooperation among southern workers came to signify support of communism. By the mid-1950s, Charleston’s AFL Tobacco Workers International Union (TWIU) Local 257 had become serious competition for the Local 15 union with DPO-CIO, because Local 15 had increasingly lost the support of white factory workers. Moreover, Local 257 was seen as the “company union” with a decidedly anti-communist stance. With internal struggles over communism in its local and national leadership, the predominately African American Local 15 in Charleston had to find new ways to compete with Local 257 and attract workers to sustain its membership.