- Silk Stockings and Socialism: Philadelphia’s Radical Hosiery Workers from the Jazz Age to the New Deal by Sharon McConnell-Sidorick
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017
294 pp., $85.00 (cloth); $29.95 (paper); $19.95 (ebook)
Two retired hosiery workers inspired Sharon McConnell-Sidorick to recover the story of how Kensington workers built a union whose reach extended well beyond the Philadelphia area. By the early decades of the twentieth century, the ever-increasing demand for fashionable silk stockings propelled Kensington factories to the top of the “full fashion hosiery” industry. By 1921 Philadelphia Branch Number 1 was the largest and most affluent local in the American Federation of Full-Fashion Hosiery Workers (AFFFHW). McConnell-Sidorick credits the workers with building and maintaining a proactive “fighting union” in the midst of the Great Depression. The author’s skillful use of workers’ histories throughout the book makes the story come alive.
In part, McConnell-Sidorick attributes the organization’s success to the energy of its young membership. Approximately 70 percent of the membership was under the age of thirty between 1920 and 1930. Members tended to be American-born daughters and sons of immigrants whose militancy did not begin or end on the shop floor but often originated in their homes and extended into their workplaces and the wider community. Silk Stockings chronicles how in the tumultuous 1930s, while most unions suffered from plummeting membership numbers, the AFFFHW grew, and its empowered membership determined their own social and economic lives. In essence, they created what the CIO would soon promote as “a culture of unity.”
Offering more than a microcosmic study of one union in one neighborhood, McConnell-Sidorick analyzes the workers’ experiences in light of the national labor movement. She is careful to credit the ideology of the nascent union to the influence of the Knights of Labor’s demands for social justice and the class consciousness of the Socialist Party. Since employers resisted even small concessions to workers, the AFFFHW’s demands to control the workplace seemed possible only because of the solidarity they achieved. While other unions struggled for their survival, the AFFFHW, bolstered by its associations with the Socialists, the Wobblies, and the Communists, averted potential threats to its existence. McConnell-Sidorick deems this solid union “one of the most progressive labor organizations in the country.” The AFFFHW moved past basic worker expectations when it marshaled its hefty treasury to organize more workers and to demand a national social insurance program.
Astute union leaders possessed the foresight to groom younger members for leadership positions. The growing emphasis on the youth culture present in movies, magazines, newspapers, shop newsletters, and buying power contributed to a sense of members’ freedom and contentment. As the Depression set in and unemployment rates spiked, union leadership reacted against evictions and unjust workplace conditions by continuing [End Page 132] to foster a sense of community even for those who had lost their jobs. Rank-and-file workers extended their culture of labor by connecting to the national labor movement when the union affiliated with the CIO. In her study of industrial Chicago during the interwar years, Lizabeth Cohen suggests that the CIO encouraged what amounted to a social revolution when workers realized that capitalism should be fair to its employees (Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994], 349). New unionists, including the hosiery workers, demanded relief from wage cuts, job loss, and unjust treatment, holding the corporations and the state responsible for this relief. In short, they sought industrial democracy for all.
The CIO went on record as opposing sexual and racial discrimination, but this position did not necessarily reflect the reality of the hosiery workers’ circumstances. In interwar Philadelphia, blacks made up fewer than 8 percent of the city’s residents and remained excluded from the textile industry. Women, however, had been present since the inception of the union. Women like Alice Nelson Krechman considered themselves an integral part of the workforce even...