Silk and Explosives: The Real Silk Strike of 1934

Updated: Jun 24

Indianapolis in the early 20th century was a city of growth and industry. Manufactories of all kinds sprouted up from various points around the downtown, and the growing population spilled out of the originally platted mile square of the city. On the north end of Massachusetts Avenue, the northeastern diagonal thoroughfare coming off the circle at the at the heart of the city’s design, grew one of these large manufacturing complexes called the Real Silk Hosiery Company. The Real Silk Hosiery Company was started in 1922 and occupied several acres of land just south of the intersection of College Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue in Indianapolis.

1929 Baist Map, #6, IUPUI Sanborn & Baist Collection. North is right.

As the name suggests, the company manufactured women's hosiery, along with lingerie and other undergarments. Financial trouble hit the company in the early 1930’s due to the ravages of the Great Depression, and the company came under bank control. In 1932, Indianapolis based businessman Gustave Efroymson acquired Real Silk, adding it to his other business interests, including department stores in the city. While still a relatively young company, Real Silk would soon be subject to labor turmoil during the already tumultuous Great Depression years when a large strike broke out in Indianapolis in 1934. While not as generally known or written about as the Indianapolis streetcar strike of 1913, the 1934 Real Silk strike was notable for its spurts of violence and occurring at the time of newly passed New Deal legislation which focused on labor issues. 


Real Silk in 1930, Bass Photo Co Collection, Ind. Hist. Soc.

The embers for the 1934 strike had their start in the already existing Employees Mutual Benefit Association ("EMBA"), an employee organization which had been in place since the early years of the company’s existence. The independence of the EMBA was questionable, as it had the support of management. In September of 1933, the newly re-elected president of the EMBA, Charles Leeke, focused his re-election remarks on allegations from “outside union organizers” that Real Silk was forcing its employees to violate provisions of the National Recovery Act (“NRA”), a Great Depression era program under which the collective bargaining abilities of unions was specifically protected. As reported in the Indianapolis Star, the Leeke came out swinging, stating “Our EMBA has in effect every provision of the code of the hosiery industry approved by President Roosevelt, and I can state the Real Silk hosiery mills is absolutely living up to every detail of that code…”


Apparently, most employees agreed, and on October 4. 1933, the employees of Real Silk voted 2,016 to 1,054 in favor of continuing to be represented by EMBA, which the Indianapolis News described as a “company union,” as opposed to representation by the American Federation of Full-Fashioned Hosiery Worker’s Union.


Despite this election, union efforts to gain a foothold at Real Silk continued. In early 1934, two employees, Estell Taylor and Nellie Savage, were terminated for passing out union literature during working hours. Their termination was overturned by the National Labor Board in late March. Not long after, some of Real Silk’s workforce, along with workers from two other local silk factories associated with Real Silk (these two had elected to join the union the previous year), walked out on strike on April 6, 1934. Union organizers asserted that the strike was to obtain union wage scales, and the “abolition of the existing bonus and penalty system.” Representatives of the American Federation of Full Fashioned Hosiery Workers Union reported that several hundred employees had gone on strike across the three plants, although management downplayed this, noting that “only a small percentage” of employees had gone on strike. After a brief gathering of the strikers in the vicinity of the three plants, the strikers adjourned to the Eagles Hall on nearby Vermont Street to plan for picketing.


Real Silk management denounced the strike as a violation of the employee representation plan (the EMBA election) which had been approved in October of the previous year. Initially, the strike was peaceful, with picket lines being maintained outside of Real Silk, and the other striking factories. No picketing was done on the weekends, as the plants were closed on Saturdays and Sundays. Indianapolis Mayor Reginald Sullivan responded to the strike by re-deploying police officers on traffic and school duty to the Real Silk complex (Gustave Efroymson was a close friend of the mayor and supporter of his campaign). On April 14, the pro-union Indianapolis Times, one of the major daily newspapers in the city, took issue with the lack of police in school zones, when it ran a story about a young girl named Pauline Pierce, who was struck by a car while crossing Massachusetts Avenue after school. Without the police officer usually posted at that location for the safety of school children, the Times quoted Pauline as asking, “Why wasn’t a policeman there, like he usually is?”


Strike scenes adjacent to Real Silk. Credit: Indianapolis Times, April 13, 1934

On April 11, a few acts of violence were reported. On that same day, the National Labor Board (which was supposed to enforce the collective bargaining provisions of the NRA) agreed to hear the striker’s demands, although sources are not clear if this decision triggered the violence. The Indianapolis Times reported that the strikers were expected to prevail before the NLB, although a ruling in favor of Real Silk by the NLB would be binding on all employees. Either way, multiple strikers were arrested for intimidation of non-striking employees, as well as for the beating of a Real Silk employee while on his way from work a few days before. Real Silk responded by combining night and day shifts in order to try to better protect its non-striking employees from violence.

The strike returned to a peaceful state for the next week, during which time employees at a Real Silk factory in Dalton, Georgia also went on strike, demanding an increase in wages, although management viewed their actions as a “sympathy strike” with the Indianapolis mill.


Strike Cartoon, Indianapolis Times, April 13

The Indianapolis Times, threw its weight behind the strikers in a detailed editorial on April 17, 1934, noting no signs of weakening by the strikers, and “no effort at conciliation” by Real Silk. The Times characterized the issue as whether workers would have the right to bargain collectively via representatives of their choosing, and encouraged the public not to be confused or swayed by the full page ads being run by Real Silk and EMBA arguing that the employees had chosen EMBA. The Times also echoed union claims that many who voted for EMBA in October of 1933 were ineligible, including factory guards, cafeteria workers, and file clerks. The Times closed, noting that “[t]he labor problems of Real Silk never can be solved permanently until its management recognizes the right of labor o enjoy the benefit of REAL industrial democracy.”


In the meantime, both sides waited for the NLB to issue its decision, while things stayed peaceful on the picket lines. This peace held until April 22, 1934, when George Madden, a Real Silk employee, reported a group of five men flipped over his car which he had parked outside his brother’s home on the near eastside of Indianapolis. The next day, several fights broke out around the city between Real Silk employees and alleged strikers. In one instance, a group of four Real Silk employees claimed to have been stopped in their cars near the intersection of Fletcher and Shelby Streets by “three car loads of alleged strikers,” who proceeded to beat the employees and damage their car. The perpetrators escaped before police arrived. Other violence broke out at Riverside Park, where the Real Silk company baseball team, who had been playing against another local team, became involved in a brawl with a group of striking workers who had shown up to the game. On the night of April 26, several reports were made to police by non-striking Real Silk employees of rocks and bricks being thrown through the windows of their homes by cars full of striking employees.


On April 27, 1934, the NLB issued its decision for the Real Silk strike and rejected the union’s request to bargain directly with Real Silk, and not through the EMBA. However, the board recommended that the unions establish a limited term of one year for their representation, which would require another election in late 1934. This appeared to stem from concerns voiced by the union and striking workers that the October 1933 approval of EMBA came as a result of Real Silk workers who were NOT members of EMBA being able to vote, which allowed EMBA to win the election.


William Smith, the secretary of the national American Federation of Full Fashioned Hosiery Workers Union, and the official managing the strike, stated the union’s view: “We feel that the national labor board did not give consideration to the seriousness of this situation; that the strikers still are determined; that they are not going to submit to any ruling which provides that their grievances are to be taken up with the management through the company union, namely EMBA.” As reported by the Indianapolis News, Smith vowed that the strike would continue and that “[t]he strike is just beginning.” Real Silk management argued that they could interfere not with the results of the October 1933 election, and that each day more strikers were abandoning the picket lines and coming back to work.


Prior to the NLB’s decision, no efforts to settle the strike had been made, and subsequent to the decision, violence flared up once again. On May 1, 1934, a fight between several female strikers and non-striking employees broke out near the Real Silk complex. Additionally, a shotgun was apparently fired out of the fourth floor of Real Silk factory, towards the picket lines. One of the Real Silk guards, some of whom had been brought in from out of state, was suspected in the gunplay. The same guards were also reported to be roaming throughout the city, picking fights with strikers and brandishing firearms, and in some cases threatening citizens who had no connection with Real Silk or the strike.

Indianapolis Times, May 2, 1934

Not long after, Michael F. Morrissey, chief of the Indianapolis Police Department, issued a statement, noting his belief that the people of Indianapolis may work, and leave employment, whenever and however they want, as long as it was peaceful. He also stated that he believed he had sufficient manpower to protect the city, and he would “be the first person to ask the mayor and the Board of Public Safety for additional men.” Chief Morrissey further reported that he had informed Real Silk that Warren Township (a township in Indianapolis) deputy constable credentials which had been issued to 17 Real Silk guards were illegal, and that the guards had to stop acting in a constable capacity. Apparently, a former constable of Warren Township had illegally distributed the credentials to the Real Silk personnel when the strike first began in order to make their anti-striker efforts more legitimate.


As the first week of May wore on, and the strike entered its third week, the federal government sent two mediators to Indianapolis to seek a resolution of the strike. P.A. Donahue was sent in by the NLB, and Anna Weinstock was sent by the Department of Labor. The Indianapolis Star reported that Ms. Weinstock had had “unusual success as a mediator of strikes in the garment industry.” Both mediators set to work meeting with the opposing sides of the strike, as well as with regional labor officials.


John Madden House, Google Streetview

Despite these efforts to settle the strike, violence continued. On Thursday, May 3, a bomb was detonated at the home of John Madden (remember his brother had his car flipped over at the same home earlier in the strike) at 2614 E. North Street. The device was placed against the foundation of the home, and when detonated created a small crater in the ground and broke windows in Madden’s home, and surrounding structures. There were no injuries, but the Star noted in a story on May 8 that not only was Madden and his family in danger, but the family who shared the other side of the duplex was also put in harm’s way.


While street fights and vandalism had been commonplace, May 7 saw an additional escalation in violence. In one incident, a bus carrying Real Silk employees home was attacked by alleged strikers, who threw rocks and bricks at the bus, injuring several. The bus had been under police escort at the time, and in addition to injuries and broken windows, it suffered a flat tire. While the tire was being fixed, another crowd of strikers arrived and moved on the bus, although the police escort prevented them from reaching the vehicle. The bus, with its tire still flat, was taken to a nearby police precinct and its passengers unloaded and taken indoors for protection while the tire was fixed. Street fights throughout the city were also reported, as was increased vandalism at employee homes.

Indianapolis Star, May 12, 1934

These events, along with the Madden bombing (there would be a failed bombing attempt at a second employee’s home a week later), spurred Real Silk to post ads in local newspapers decrying the actions of the strikers, and pleading for the city and police officers to protect their non-striking workers and property (in addition to offering rewards for information). In response to this violence, Chief Morrissey arrested the strike organizer William Smith, and declared that his patience was now exhausted and ordered his officers “to meet violence with violence.”


On May 9, and in the face of aggressive actions from the police, the strikers obtained an injunction from the Marion County court against the police to prevent any breaking up of their picket lines. The next day, William Smith, who had been released from jail, and Gustave Efroymson were summoned by Indianapolis Mayor Reginald Sullivan, who attempted to mediate the labor dispute. However, after two hours of discussion, no resolution was reached. Also, on that day, Department of Labor mediator Anna Weinstock left the city to report back to her superiors in Washington. The Star reported that she left “discouraged” by her lack of success in mediating a settlement. To round out a busy day in strike news, the Indiana Supreme Court also struck down the injunction granted to the strikers by the Marion County court.


But a possible breakthrough was coming. On May 14 the parties agreed to participate in negotiations in Washington with the NLB. Both sides selected representatives to attend, and in a show of good faith, the strikers dropped their efforts to revive their injunction against the police. The News reported hopefully that “peaceful conditions prevailed in the vicinity of the mill,” as both sides awaited the outcome of the negotiations. During this lull, 11 men were convicted of rioting from the previous outbreaks of violence related to the New Silk strike. One woman, Marie Miller, who had been charged with assault and battery during a strike disturbance, had her judgment withheld by the court.


Indianapolis Star, May 22, 1934

On May 22, 1934, an agreement was reached, and the striking workers voted to return to work on May 24. The terms of the settlement seem to favor Real Silk, as the EMBA was recognized as the representational body for the Real Silk employees, although a new election was still needed in the fall of 1934. Alexander McKeown, the vice president of the national union, was quoted in the Times saying that “[i]t’s just one of those damn things. We reached a point where it was impossible to buck the opposition financially. We just took it on the chin.” However, this agreement was limited to just the main Real Silk factory, and the smaller satellite factories in the Indianapolis area retained their previously voted upon union representation.


William Smith, the leader of the strike on behalf of the union was forced out of his national secretary position because of the outcome of the strike. Gustave Efroymson, owner of Real Silk, would continue to operate the company through the rest of the Great Depression, and World War II. Following his death in 1946, Gustave’s son, Robert, took over the operations, but would shut down the company’s manufacturing operations in in the early 1950’s, and converted Real Silk into an investment company which he operated until his death. The factory site on Massachusetts Avenue was converted first into a printing operation after Real Silk's closure, and in the early 1990’s was converted in the Real Silk Loft apartments. Already a prominent name in Indianapolis in the 1930’s, the Efroymson family are known for their philanthropy and donations to numerous community projects and causes throughout Indianapolis via the Efroymson Family Fund, which may have at least been partially built upon the family's financial stake in Real Silk.


Real Silk as it appears today (Google Streetview)

Please note, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented access to some resources for this posting. While the various newspaper articles and other sources noted below provided excellent information, the Indiana Historical Society (“IHS”) maintains the company records for Real Silk, including some records related to the strike. I encourage readers to explore these records once they become accessible, not only as they relate to the strike, but to the Real Silk operations as a whole.  Once the IHS reopens, I intend to review their materials and if needed, supplement this post based on the information in their archives.

Sources


Indianapolis Star, September 8, 1933, April 11, 1934, April 22, 1934, April 24, 1934, April 27, 1934, May 2, 1934, May 3, 1934, May 10, 1934, May 11, 1934, My 20, 1934


Indianapolis News, October 5, 1933, April 6, 1934, April 27, 1934, May 5, 1934


Indianapolis Times, April 11,1934, April 14, 1934, April 23, 1934, May 1, 1934, May 25, 1934, May 26, 1934


Editorial from the Indianapolis Times Concerning the Real Silk Strike, https://indianahistorylibrary.on.worldcat.org/oclc/869840298

National Labor Board Decisions, August 1933- March 1934

IUPUI Sanborn and Basit Collection, Indianapolis Baist Atlas Plan #6, 1929

Real Silk Hosiery Mill, North Building, 1930 (Bass #218085F), Indiana Historical Society, http://images.indianahistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/dc012/id/3194

Bodenhamer, D. J., Barrows, R. G., Vanderstel, D. G., & Indiana University. Press. (1994). The encyclopedia of Indianapolis. Indiana University Press.

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