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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 27, New Delhi, June 20, 2020

New York City Cab Drivers’ Strike and Waiting for Lefty | K.A. Manikumar

Saturday 20 June 2020


by K.A. Manikumar*

The 1930s, that experienced economic depression of unprecedented magnitude, has been hailed as America’s "Red Decade”. Hundreds of protests had been organized and conducted by Communist and Socialist Parties during this extremely trying period for common people. The most prominent among them was the New York City Cab Drivers’ Strike. On 3 February 1934 more than 10,000 taxi drivers launched into a lightning strike, disrupting the city’s transportation system. The cause of the strike was the Union’s demand that the accrued proceeds of the city tax of 5 percent of each fare should go to the drivers instead of the companies. The Mayor of New York supported the strike and ordered the stoppage of issuance of new Drivers’ license to prevent the owners from “importing gangsters and other undesirables” as scabs. He also offered to negotiate between the parties.

However, when the unionists picketed the railway terminals and steamship piers, they had to scuffle with independent drivers who had not struck and so were waiting there to take passengers. The police arrested the striking drivers and cancelled their driving licenses. The forty-day old strike of New York City Cab Drivers happened to be one of the factors for the Roosevelt administration’s announcement of relief measures to labour as a part of New Deal Policy. Social Security Act (1935), guaranteeing unemployment insurance, old-age pension and the like, was enacted. The National Labour Relations Act (1935) guaranteed the private company employees to organize into trade unions and engage in collective bargaining. The Act also provided for a National Labour Relations Board to enforce the newly enacted law.

The New York City Cab Drivers’ Strike inspired the American playwright Clifford Odets to write his play Waiting for Lefty. The message this sixty-five minute play conveys is when mass unemployment, exploitation, and poverty grow, the workers would not hesitate to break the chain of servitude and fight for justice. In the prologue of the drama the Taxi Drivers are in their Union meeting. The Union leader Harry Fatt, addressing the members, dissuades them from insisting on a decision to strike. He expresses the view that in Roosevelt’s administration, the interests of workers are safe. When the men ask about the whereabouts of Lefty Costello, Harry Fatt evades a direct reply and tells them that all the members of the elected committee are present. A man who claims to be a war veteran and now a driver (Joe) takes exception to the Union leader dubbing those speaking in favour of a strike as Communists and expresses the view that he strongly feels that a strike is desirable, a view shared by his wife too.

 In Scene 1, a conversation between Joe and his wife Edna highlights the pay cut inflicted by employers and the resultant inability of a taxi driver like Joe even to pay up house rent with reduced salary. Financial straits experienced by them necessitate mortgaging of their household furniture to subsist. Joe bemoans the corrupt nature of present leadership to which Edna suggests Joe start a union of his own. She even threatens to divorce Joe if he did not leave his degenerate Union.

Scene 2 begins with a lab assistant (Miller) being offered a higher salary by his employer (Fayette). The job was to work with a Chemist (Dr. Brenner) in a factory producing poisonous gas to be used in a chemical war. As Miller had lost his brother and many of his relatives in the First World War, he turns down the offer and leaves the place after punching on Fayette’s face, murmuring that he would better dig trenches and live.

The dialogue of a young girl Florence and her boyfriend Sid are part of scene 3. Sid is critical of his brother joining the Navy. While deploring the attitude of the capitalists of his country to exploit the poor workers, he becomes melancholic, thinking of Florence’s possible hesitation to marry him because of his poor pay. Both play the tape recorder and dance to forget the worries.

In Scene 4, the focus is on the progressing Union meeting. Union Leader Harry Fatt, informing the members of how a taxi drivers’ strike ended against the interests of the workers in Philadelphia, introduces a person by name Tom Clayton to the unionists. Clayton speaks discouragingly of a decision to launch a strike. But he is shouted down by the members. A member alleges that he is a stooge of the management and his intention is to split the union, thereby preventing the members from going on a strike. Soon it is found out that Clayton is really Clancy and not Clayton. When his false identity is exposed, humiliated Clancy leaves the meeting hall.

Scene 5 is on a conversation between two doctors, Dr. Barnes and Dr. Benjamin. Dr. Benjamin, a Jew by birth, though highly competent, is sacked by the hospital management, as a retrenchment measure. Benjamin, on hearing that his removal from service was based on racial discrimination, throws off his operating gloves in disgust and vows to go to Socialist Soviet Union. Yet later owing to his family circumstances he is forced to become a taxi driver and from the earnings pursues higher studies in America.

What transpires at the Union meeting in the end is focused then. Agate, a member of the Union, says he takes pride that he belongs to working class. When he proceeds to speak, Union leader and his cronies try to prevent him from speaking further. But frustrating their attempt with the help of his colleagues Agate reaches the lectern and harangues: ‘If the leadership of the Union calls the proponents of strike communists, he would not hesitate even to adopt communist salute’. Then he performs the salute, and rouses the members to “unite and fight.” He tells them not to bother waiting for Lefty, who may never come. At that point, a man rushes into the meeting and informs the assemblage that Lefty Costello is shot dead and his body has just been found. At Agate’s urging, the men start chanting “Strike Strike! Strike!”

Though the unionists are dithering in the beginning, they resolve in the end decisively in favour of a strike to improve their living conditions. The Lefty Costello is killed with the sole intention of depriving the Union of an effective leadership. Yet that did not shatter the resolve of the working class. In the aftermath of New York City Taxi Drivers’ Strike, the Congress Industrial Organization (CIO) formed by John L. Lewis recorded phenomenal growth in its membership. Thanks to the campaigns and the work done by the Communist Party of USA which worked closely with CIO, 10, 500,000 workers had been unionized by 1941. The United Auto Workers of the General Motors that struck work for forty-four days (sit down strike of 1936) succeeded in securing recognition from the country’s biggest and mightiest corporation. In 1930 the Communist Party of USA had been a small organization with not more than 7,500 members. A decade later it had grown to have more than 100,000 as members.

 This play which resonates with the common people has relevance even today’s context. It is a warning to present day industrialists and entrepreneurs who are bent on oppressing and exploiting their workers to their selfish ends. It is an inspiration to the working class that in the wake of denial of hard-won labour rights, they should realign themselves and fight uncompromisingly.

* (K.A. Manikumar, is Former Professor of History, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli)

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