Birth of Vera Weisbord, Radical
In her quest to fulfill her ideals, Vera Buch Weisbord took on many roles. She was an active participant in the Labor Movement, the struggle for civil rights and social justice, and the feminist movement. She was also an author, a communist, a defendant in a murder trial, and a prolific visual artist.
Born in Forestville, CT in 1895, she was originally exposed to the ideas of socialism while a patient in a tuberculosis sanitarium. In 1919 she joined the Socialist Party but left it to join the Communist Party of America when it was formed in 1919. With her husband Albert Weisbord, she organized women workers during the Passaic, NJ textile strike of 1926, the first communist-led work stoppage in America.
Conditions for the 17,000 textile workers in Passaic were dismal. Wages were lower than the poverty level; women earned 80% of what men were paid even while working 10 hours a day; sanitary conditions were poor, and the death rate for young children was 52% higher than in the rest of the state.
Employers hired immigrant workers from different countries to disrupt efforts to organize a union. In 1925, textile manufacturers imposed a cut in working hours, followed by a 10% reduction in wages. Workers demanded a rescinding of the wage cut, a 44-hour workweek, time- and-a-half pay for overtime work, and no retaliation against union members. The companies responded by firing the union organizers, and the walkout began. Police attacked picket lines with tear gas and fire hoses. Striking workers sent their children to safety in New York. The work stoppage lasted more than a year. When it ended, all the mills had signed a union contract with workers. (The Passaic Textile Strike, a unique seven-reel silent film produced by International Workers Aid, documented workers’ stories and was used to increase awareness of the union movement. One reel is available on Youtube.)
Vera Buch Weisbord took the skills she learned during this struggle into the fray of another major strike, this one by textile workers in Gastonia, NC. In April of 1929, 1800 mill workers walked off their jobs to protest the miserable working conditions, demanding a 40-hour workweek, a minimum $20 weekly wage, and union recognition. Striking workers were evicted from their mill-owned homes, and National Guard troops were called out to break up marches and picket lines. A riot between police, vigilantes, and strikers ended with the death of a police chief. Vera Weisbord and 15 others were charged with his murder. When a mistrial was declared, the strikers were subjected to a wave of violent intimidation. Though the Gastonia strike was ultimately unsuccessful, the strike’s notoriety and the issues it raised strengthened the American union movement.
During the Depression, the Wiesbords formed the Communist League of Struggle, publishing a journal Class Struggle, where Vera wrote essays on labor, feminism, revolution, and women and war. The couple moved to Chicago to organize unemployed and black workers on the South Side. Vera wrote that devoting themselves to the struggle for social justice meant “living on the fringes of society, never integrated into it, never having more than a toehold.” (All issues of Class Struggle are available online at the Albert & Vera Weisbord Archives.)
Vera worked against segregation with the Congress of Racial Equality in the 1940s, which grew into a deep involvement with the Civil Rights Movement in the following decades. She was critical of the marginalization of women in the radical movement when she wrote, “in general the situation of women in the [Communist] Party – and of wives in particular – was an ignominious one.” She was of the opinion that women’s problems went beyond the role of worker and had to be seen as part of the larger class struggle.
Though failing health prevented her full participation in politics, she fulfilled a personal ambition in 1952 when she took art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. She produced more than 400 paintings over the next 20 years.
She and Albert commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Passaic Strike in 1976. In 1977, she published her autobiography A Radical Life.
That life ended when Vera Weisbord died in Chicago in 1987, undoubtedly a radical to the end.
Sources: Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume 5, Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James, Paul S. Boyer, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study; “Vera Buch Weisbord, Activist and Labor Organizer, Is Dead,” New York Times, September 13, 1987; “Vera Buch Weisbord, Author, Labor Organizer,” Chicago Tribune, September 9, 1987; Albert & Vera Weisbord Archives.