Union Maids
Working class heroines

by Linda Gordon

from Jump Cut, no. 14, 1977, pp. 34-35
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2004

UNION MAIDS is an important, compelling, and happy new film, product of a new class conscious socialist movement that is emerging out of the strengths of both the New and Old Lefts.(1) The film, if it is as widely used as I hope it will be, should also help to build that movement by making it possible to understand and use our history.

UNION MAIDS is thus a film about working-class history made to become part of the working-class future. It is carefully researched (although it contains some misleading implications which I will discuss below) and it is easy and accessible. It is about the emotional and personal as well as the objective and political reality of its heroines. UNION MAIDS is a film about heroics, and therefore in the optimistic tradition of socialist realism. It reasserts the potential of leadership by people who are at once exceptional and ordinary.

The film, a collective portrait of three women labor organizers active from the 1930s to the present, focuses on the CIO organizing drive of the 1930s. The three women were part of a community of working class Chicago socialists. They all came to Chicago in their youth, two from farms and one from New Orleans. All entered industrial jobs in the early 1930s and rapidly became rank-and-file activists, union organizers, and socialist leaders.

Their stories first appeared, told by themselves, in Alice and Staughton Lynd’s recent book, Rank and File: Personal Histories of Working Class Organizers. Thus it is possible to find out even more about them than the movie tells us. In content as well as in conceptualization the movie is in some ways a cinematization of the book, and this is no slight to the film. Rather, it suggests the importance of the kind of class conscious, political, oral history that the Lynds are doing.

I am writing about this film mainly as an historian. I bring in “extraneous” information, from the Lynds’ book and from other sources, because I want to evaluate the film as a form of communication of historical and political understandings. Many of my comments are more questions than criticisms, for being neither filmmaker nor film critic, I am unsure of the possibilities of filmic communication. I am stimulated to offer these comments because I liked the film very much, and hope that its showing will often be combined with discussions in which its political implications can be evaluated.

Sylvia Woods was born in New Orleans in 1909, black, daughter of a craftsman roofer, a man proud of his skill. She is conscious of the political legacy given her by her father, who was an ardent union man and a Garveyite. As a schoolgirl she was already fighting racism and refusing to accept the acconmodationist ideology her school offered. Stella Nowicki also sees herself mostly as her father’s daughter. She grew up on a midwestern farm, leaving there in 1933 at age 17. Her father had been a coal miner, a socialist who read Lenin and Gorky in Polish, while her mother was a practicing Catholic. Stella learned Polish from her father’s revolutionary books, yet she also had to struggle against her father’s patriarchal control. Kate Hyndman is the only one of the “union maids” who speaks in the film of her debt to her female ancestors’ rebelliousness and toughness. (Since in the Lynds’ book, she too speaks mainly of what she learned from her father and how she struggled against him, one wonders whose decision it was, or whether it was merely chance, that she speaks of the women in her family in the film. This is one of several instances when the viewer senses that the filmmakers are not entirely in control of what their film says.) Hyndman immigrated to Iowa from Croatia at age five in 1913. Her father was also a coal miner.

Visually we meet these women only through contemporary interviews. We never see them at their work - neither factory work nor organizing. These are not famous or rich people, and there are no old newsreels of them, only a few old snapshots. The viewer imagines them as young women in the 1930s by drawing on their current liveliness and vitality as they describe their past work. Those who already know some of this history can add to the film mentally, enthusiastically participating in the historical reconstruction.

That the film works so well and is so gripping even to those who are not familiar with this history is, I think, largely due to Julia Reichert and James Klein’s wonderful editing and use of old still and documentary photography. On second viewing it is surprising to realize that this energetic movie is composed only of interviews edited together with historical images. We see what Chicago looked like in the Depression; we see mass strikes, sit-downs, demonstrations, eviction resistance, class violence. The force of the class struggle of the 1930s is shown, not just told. One feels inside this energy, and the music is important to this. Taj Mahal, the Pointer sisters, Howie Tarnower, Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers help set the mood and pace of the film.

But the specific political content of the film, the history that it teaches, is not precise as its more general communication of mood. I found myself wishing for more explicitness in many areas, especially considering how few of the film’s viewers can be expected to know working class history (given the deliberate suppression of that history in our education).

The film is about a period of great working class power. The three organizers reveal nostalgia for the feeling of that power. Sylvia Woods describes how in the laundry where she first worked (it was only rarely that black women could get industrial jobs at that time), the workers conducted what she believes may have been the first sit-down strike of the Depression era. She is proud of those women, full of respect for their and her own militancy and bravery. Stella Nowicki’s face is luminous with delight when she describes how often the packinghouse workers would stop the line, shutting down production. There is an important lesson here. When workers, for a change, feel powerful, it is fun - even elating. This emotion is a large part of what makes people militant and gives them confidence in their own and other people’s power to make radical social changes.

Yet this respect for the reality of working class power in the industrial cities of the 1930s contains a misconception of women’s reality. The film’s whole conception - the story of three women CIO organizers - denies the larger reality, which is that the CIO did very little for women. Most women did not then and still don't work in heavy industry. The CIO’s efforts to organize the large numbers of women in clerical and service work were puny. The exceptions came as a result of bottom-up pressure, rank-and-file local organizing drives, like the early actions in Sylvia Woods laundry, which virtually forced the CIO to respond. The unions did not initiate significant drives to organize women’s employment sectors. Furthermore, most employed women did not work in mass employment situations at all. Until 1940 the largest job category for women was domestic service! Domestic and personal service workers represented 29% of the female labor force. Thus, partly owing to the sexism of the CIO, partly to the structural sexism of the labor market and the family, the women who, like the “union maids,” were involved in the great working class rising of the 1930s were exceptions. To miss this basic fact would be not only to misunderstand history but potentially also to mistake some of the problems of organizing women today.

These qualifications do not lessen the legitimacy of choosing the “union maids” as the topic for a film. Their very strengths and achievements show what women can do. But even a brief piece of narrative in the film, spoken or written, could have placed the three women in a better historical context.

The views that the “union maids” had in the 1930s about women, expressed sensitive understanding of women’s special problems. Sylvia Woods tells a moving anecdote about encouraging women to resist employers’ efforts to intimidate them about absenteeism by refusing to give specific reasons on the form supplied for that purpose. They all just wrote in “tired” as their reason for absence.

Kate Hyndman tells how when she was a CIO staff organizer the men all ate lunch without her, and her union boss complained that it was inappropriate for her to eat with the staff stenographers! Yet all three women are insistent on the necessity of working with men, struggling with them, and educating them, though understanding that this means double work and double struggle for the women.

Kate’s personal sense of her womanhood, symbolic perhaps of the whole generation, comes through in a story she tells us about her farm grandmother. The first morning after her wedding night, the whole extended farm household assembled, expecting her to serve them breakfast as was customary. She announced that she would not be their servant and would not wait on them. Instead she would work in the fields and challenged any man to do more than she. The women were to be super-women. They were to prove their merit by being better than the men. This was not an unusual attitude; it was characteristic not only of women in the Left but of a large part of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century feminist movement. And yet we must be critical of this. It not only avoids a direct attack on male supremacy, it is not an effective strategy for organizing women. After all, it’s not much of an appeal to say, join us so you can work twice as hard.

Could the film have found some way to offer a critical view of this, to contrast it with other possible feminist strategies? Could the film at least have pointed out that though there were many precedents for autonomous women’s labor organizations before the 1930s, they were not seriously considered by any of the radicals of the 1930s?

The film’s confrontations with racism are equally tentative and limited, merely reporting the problems and analyses of the organizers. The three women seem to understand the fact of black vanguardism: that black workers were the most militant and led the others. They all struggled with the racism of white workers as well as that of the capitalist system. They are also unwavering in their certainty that interracial class unity is essential to a strong workers’ movement and that integrated organization is the only way to get it. Indeed, black Sylvia Woods, in her warm, personal but very didactic style, chooses to tell us about overcoming her own racism! That is, she says that at first her loyalty and her political commitment were exclusively to black workers and that she slowly learned that there were whites who she could trust to fight for racial justice.

This story no doubt reflects the positive experience of many black radicals of the period, but it is hardly more common than the experience of betrayal by whites. And looking back on the 1930s today, we experience a certain sadness that the interracial unity fought for by these radicals did not predominate, and that racism continues as a powerful, perhaps the most powerful, disunifying force within the working class. Could the film have put the optimism of the 1930s on this question into some perspective? Without that perspective, one wonders if that historical optimism is not made to seem unconvincing and naive.

I am a bit disturbed by the reportage-like stance of the film, its backing off from interpretation. There is too little narrative, too little historical context, too little comment from the 1970s. It would not diminish the contribution and acumen of the three heroines to suggest that their historical era was different, that forty years later we could learn from their mistakes as well as from their victories.

The film’s documentary stance is perhaps most disturbing on the question of leadership and socialist organization within the CIO. I think that all three women were members of the Communist Party. However, the film masks their Party membership. The three women speak of themselves as “radicals,” not socialists or communists, and say nothing about their organizational connections. Stella Nowicki refers in the film to “Herb,” whom we know from the book to be a CP activist, but in the film he is entirely unidentified. Having had Communist Party parents myself, I suspect that the reticence may be the preference of the women themselves, the caution resulting from years of persecution, and the filmmakers may have been powerless to change their minds. Their discretion is understandable, but it is a mistake. It is a mistake, first, because when the issue does come up, as when Kate Hyndman is denounced as a Red in the 1940s, she is in a defensive position. Thus, the film viewer sees being a communist, as an accusation of wrong-doing before we have encountered it as a strength and a source of pride., Furthermore, this avoidance potentially confirms widespread fears and stereotypes of communists as habitually devious and manipulative. By contrast, the personal qualities of Woods, Nowicki, and Hyndman would have made it possible for the film to show that it was a good thing to be a communist in the 1930s.

Second, failure to discuss the discipline, support, comradeship, and strategic consolation these women got from their Party comrades suggests that somehow they became effective leaders magically through their innate individual talents, One response to that kind of understanding would be politically pessimistic, to think, “I could never be like them.” The truth is that good leadership is created by a combination of individual qualities, learned skills, and connective organization and support. Furthermore, the relationship between leaders and the rank-and-file is mystified by the lack of clarity about the role of the Communist Party. For example, Sylvia Woods criticizes the CIO leadership for failing to lead, for remaining behind the understanding and demands of the masses of workers. Yet given her overall evaluation of the CIO - its bureaucratism, sexism, conservatism - this criticism makes no sense without the additional information that there were organizations of socialists that could have educated and challenged workers to a more radical understanding of what could be done.

Again, I am not sure how the film could have been otherwise, given what I suspect might have been the women’s reluctance to discuss their CP affiliations. Yet even had there been no way of confronting the CP issue, there could have been a clearer sense of the collective nature of the leadership these “union maids” offered.

One of the strengths of the film is the great attractiveness of the three women. They are so witty, happy, energetic and handsome; I would like to hang out with them. At the very end of the film there is a still picture, posed, of the three together. Reminiscing about their work, the countless meetings they must have gone to, their experiences of sharing personal and public problems, with others if not with each other? Conversation between the three might have brought out more hindsight observations and criticisms, lessening the burden of the narration to provide this. Here too there may have been reticence to overcome, not only about past politics but also about the relevance of “personal life.” One of the three women points out that most women activists were unmarried. Clearly she views this fact as socially significant, but she does not wish to elaborate. (A 1970’s feminist thinks immediately of women’s labor in the family and men’s exploitation of women as factors that prevent women’s political activity.) Apparently she does not view these problems as political issues. Choosing not to comment, the film again limits us to seeing the story through three individual narratives.

Despite their existence in the film as separate individuals, the women do not seem isolated. This is largely because of the skill with which filmmakers Reichert, Klein, and Miles Mogulescu put together sounds and images of the collective force of the CIO drive. Yet beyond this, the very attractiveness, magnetism and dignity of Kate Hyndman. Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods show that their lives have been lived in an intensely social manner. Ultimately the film is theirs, and they are its strength. The film lets us see them, and the view is clear due to the filmmakers’ craft. It would be wonderful if UNION MAIDS marked only the beginning of the use of film to let us learn from the activists of an earlier period. If we rely on historians to build this communication, or even on the written work of our now scanty Movement press, we will lose too much.


1. I am indebted to Rosalyn Baxendall, Peter Biskind, Nancy Falk, Allen Hunter, and Ann Popkin for helpful comments and ideas.