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Aug 09, 2021

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Feb 21, 2014

Black Women Raise Their Voices In the

Tobacco Industry

(This article appears in the March-April 2014 edition of The American Postal Worker)

Workers on strike at R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.

Workers on strike at R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.

In the early 20th century, tobacco workers in the Southeast labored in factories under atrocious conditions. Black women were typically responsible for the unpleasant and demanding job of de-stemming tobacco leaves, which they did by hand. The “stemmers” were the lowest paid in the industry, and their wages depended on the amount of stemming they did each day. As the quantity of tobacco leaf rose and fell with the agricultural cycle, so did their pay.

The factory bosses often ruled with an iron fist. They treated the factories as if they were plantations, and the hiring process was reminiscent of slave auctions. “Foremen lined us up against the walls,” remembered one tobacco stemmer, “and chose the sturdy, robust ones.” Once hired, the women were subjected to verbal and physical abuse.

Even the buildings had changed very little since the days of slavery. The rooms were full of tobacco dust and the lack of ventilation made breathing diffcult. The tobacco was dirty and sticky, especially in the early months of the growing season, before it had time to dry.

The stemmers found solidarity in their plight and referred to each other as “sisters.” Despite the workers’ unity, the employers were cocky, believing that no labor union would try to organize workers in the tobacco industry.

A Tongue-Lashing

By 1938, Louise “Mamma” Harris had worked at the I.N. Vaughan Export stemmery in Richmond VA for nearly six years. The women who worked at Export were among the poorest in Richmond; they had to wrap themselves in tobacco burlap to stay warm in the winter. The stemmers earned an average of $3 a week and often worked more than 90 hours in cramped, dirty conditions.

Strikers from United Tobacco Workers Local 22 on the picket line at Piedmont Leaf Tobacco Company.

Strikers from United Tobacco Workers Local 22 on the picket line at Piedmont Leaf Tobacco Company.

Harris had been feuding with a male co-worker since the day she was hired. Every week he would scold and harass her – and she would take it. One day in the spring of 1938, when he started shouting, she stunned him by “giving him a tongue-lashing” in return.

He accused her of joining the union campaign that had started one week prior. The news of the campaign hadn’t reached Harris, but she was interested, so she began asking around.

Harris took 60 of her co-workers to the next meeting of the Tobacco Stemmers’ and Laborers’ Industrial Union. Sitting in the front row, when the organizers asked for volunteers, Mamma Harris jumped to her feet.

After winning support from 700 of the 1,000 employees who worked at Export, the time came to take a stand.

“We called our strike and closed up Export tight as a bass drum,” she remembered years later, “A couple hundred tried to break our line but we wasn’t giving a dog a bone.”

The job action worked. After 17 days on strike, the factory owner was forced to come to the bargaining table, conceding, “Times certainly changed.”

Times had changed. Using disgusting language, he reminisced that in days past he would fi re a black employee just for walking into his office. Now, the workers had won a wage increase, an eight-hour work day, and the right to engage in collective bargaining.

Upon seeing the success of the strike and observing Harris’ leadership, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) established the Tobacco Workers Organizing Committee, where Harris worked to organize other tobacco factories in Richmond.

The Moment of Truth

Sorting tobacco at the T.B. Williams Tobacco Company.

Sorting tobacco at the T.B. Williams Tobacco Company.

By 1943, tobacco workers had gained some protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, including a 40-hour work week, a minimum wage of 40 cents per hour, and time-and-a-half for overtime. Still, tobacco stemmers in Winston-Salem NC earned barely half of what the federal government said was a “minimum subsistence of living.” Machine-stemming had replaced stemming by hand, but the work was no less tedious. Three women operated each machine. One would grab a handful of tobacco leaves, untie them, and pass them to a co-worker who spread the leaves flat. A third would feed the leaves onto a conveyer that carried them between two blades that cut the stem away from the leaves.

The start of World War II had driven up the demand for cigarettes and had depleted the workforce. Managers at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco responded by insisting on overtime, speeding up production, and increasing production quotas. Foremen walked the fl oors disciplining the women and checking their work.

Theodosia Gaither Simpson had started working at Reynolds in 1936, and within a few years she became part of the Tobacco Workers Organizing Committee.

Simpson and her co-workers couldn’t keep up with the demanding pace of the work and finally had enough. One co-worker remembered the tipping point, saying, “If you’d tell them they put too much work on you, they’d fi re you. It got so we wasn’t going to take it anymore; we had had it.”

On the morning of June 17, 1943, Simpson witnessed a co-worker being pushed too hard. The woman was sick, and couldn’t keep up the pace. The foreman said if she didn’t catch up, she would be fi red. She broke down in tears, moving Simpson to action.

Simpson called a few women together in the bathroom to plan a sit-down strike the next morning. She recalled telling her co-workers, “Let’s not work until we get some understanding on how these people are going to be treated.”

Management found out about the plan and warned the women that would lose their jobs if they stopped work. Instead of backing down, 200 women began the job action that afternoon.

Word spread quickly, and within minutes men and women in other parts of the factor joined the work stoppage.

R.J. Reynolds executives were quick to respond. John C. Whitaker, vice president of Manufacturing, and Edward Bumgardner, head of the Employment Office, demanded to know what was wrong.

Theodosia Simpson described some of the responses: “We can’t work this hard.” “I don’t make enough money to give my family a decent meal.” “We’re tired of these foremen treating us like dirt.”

Whitaker claimed the company was operating under wartime wage controls and could only raise wages with the government’s approval. Simpson countered that the Little Steel Formula, a 1942 decision by the National War Labor Board, allowed for modest pay increases for the duration of the war.

Whitaker finally conceded and suggested Simpson and her co-workers form a committee to meet with him the following day.

The workers didn’t back down. The strike spread, and soon the great R.J. Reynolds and many tobacco leaf houses were successfully organized. Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America CIO was born, with brave African-American women like Theodosia Gaither Simpson as its heart and soul.


Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-twentieth-century South, by Robert Rodgers Korstad;

Major Problems in African-American History. Vol.2: From Freedom to ‘Freedom Now,’ 1865-1990s: Documents and Essays, by Thomas C. Holt and Elsa Barkley;

The Encyclopedia of Strikes in American History, by Aaron Brenner, Benjamin Day, and Immanuel Ness; U.S. Women in Struggle: A Feminist Studies Anthology, by Claire Goldberg Moses, and Heidi I. Hartmann;

Subversive Sisterhood: Black Women and Unions in the Southern Tobacco Industry, by Dolores E. Janiewski

Feb 19, 2014

APWU Celebrates Women's History Month

APWU Web News Article #028-14, Feb. 14, 2014

The APWU will honor the contributions of American women in shaping our nation in March, during Women’s History Month. APWU members are encouraged to participate in activities that celebrate the achievements of women.

The APWU National Executive Board adopted a proclamation [PDF] in January that recognizes the “unique and powerful role” women have played in the APWU and in society.

The APWU continues to encourage female postal workers to join the union and to take on active roles in their locals .

“Every day, women make significant contributions to the APWU. We urge all female union members to join their ranks and get involved,” said APWU President Mark Dimondstein.

The APWU celebrates the achievements of every woman who has supported organized labor and the progressive movement for social change.

Feb 17, 2010

2010 Komen Denver Race for the Cure

Sunday, October 3rd at the Pepsi Center

5K Run/Walk or 1 Mile Family Walk

Register Today at

or Call 303-242-3100

75% of money raised stays in the 19 county

service area going toward breast health education, breast cancer screening and treatment

25% of money raised funds national cancer research




You and companies like yours have made the Komen Denver Race for the Cure one of the largest and most influential nonprofit fundraising events in the country. Nearly 55,000 participants, local and national corporations, and the support of the Denver community have established this event as the best of its kind, raising millions of dollars in our quest to cure breast cancer by funding research and local breast health and breast cancer programs. Race support comes in all shapes and sizes. We encourage you to join with other top Denver businesses in the fight to end breast cancer.
Benefits of Involvement
Based on your level of sponsorship, your company may:
• Receive high visibility before the event and on Race day
• Reach an audience of more than 60,000 people on one day
• Test-market and showcase products
• Build employee morale and company pride
• Retain and increase customer loyalty
• Align yourself with the top fundraising event in Colorado
About Susan G. Komen for the Cure®
Nancy G. Brinker promised her dying sister, Susan G. Komen, she would do everything in her power to end breast cancer forever. In 1982, that promise became Susan G. Komen for the Cure, now the world’s largest breast cancer organization and the largest source of nonprofit funds dedicated to the fight against breast cancer with more than $1.3 billion invested to date. For more information about Susan G. Komen for the Cure, breast health or breast cancer, visit or call 1-877 GO KOMEN 2
Will you stand up and support a promise made between two sisters more than 25 years ago and help find the cures for breast cancer?
Cause Marketing Matters
A 2008 Cone/Duke University Behavioral Cause Study revealed that American consumers continue to have high philanthropic expectations for companies even amid the current economic crisis. 
• 79% of respondents said they would likely switch from one brand to another, when price and quality are about equal, if another brand is associated with a good cause.
• When replicating the study online, results revealed that participants spent nearly twice as long reviewing cause-related ads versus general corporate advertisements resulting in a 19% sales lift. Consumers have an interest in corporate responsibility and they act on it.
• “This is clearly great news for brand managers, as every percentage increase can translate to millions of dollars in revenue.” – Gavin Fitzsimons, lead researcher for study Race demographics are available upon request.
Supporting Our Mission: Use of Funds
Our objective is to provide maximum return to support our mission to save lives and end breast cancer forever by empowering people, ensuring quality care for all and energizing science to find the cures. In the last 17 years, through events like the Komen Denver Race for the Cure, the Denver Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure® has invested over 23 million dollars in community breast health programs in 12 counties. Up to 75% of the net proceeds fund local breast cancer programs and at least 25% supports the national Susan G. Komen for the Cure Grants Program to fund research. Thousands of Denver women and men who could not afford breast healthcare have received screenings, education and treatments as a result of funds raised through the Komen Denver Race for the Cure each year.

Sep 22, 2009

Cervical Cancer is Nearly 100% Preventable

Union Women Use Creativity
to Get the Message Out

Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women around the world, killing nearly 300,000 women each year. In the United States, the American Cancer Society estimates that in 2009, 11,270 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and 4,070 women will die of the disease. And yet, this disease is almost always preventable.

The Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), working through its Cervical Cancer Prevention Works ( educational program, wants to ensure that union women understand this disease and know about the tools that are available to prevent it.

“No woman should die of cervical cancer,” said Marsha Zakowski, president of CLUW. “Experts know that cervical cancer is caused by “high-risk” types of a common infection – the human papillomavirus, or HPV. And we now have available preventive technologies, including the Pap test, the HPV test and the HPV vaccine, to help stop this disease in its tracks.”

HPV is a common, sexually transmitted infection. Approximately three out of every four adults will have HPV at some point in their lives. Most HPV infections go away without symptoms or treatment. Infections that do not go away can cause cells on the cervix to change and become abnormal. Over time, abnormal cells can slowly develop into cervical cancer.

The Pap test looks for abnormal cells that can develop into cervical cancer. The Pap test is recommended for all women beginning at age 21 or within 3 years of becoming sexually active – whichever comes first.

The HPV test detects high-risk types of HPV, which can lead to abnormal cells. In women 30 and older, the Pap and HPV tests together provide the best screening protection against cervical cancer.

The HPV vaccine protects against the two types of high-risk HPV that cause about 70 percent of all cervical cancers. The HPV vaccine is effective when given to girls and young women who are not yet sexually active. It is approved in the U.S. for girls and young women ages 9 to 26.

Because the HPV vaccine does not protect against all high-risk HPV types, it can’t entirely eliminate the risk of cervical cancer. Thus, even women who have been vaccinated must still be screened to protect against cancer caused by HPV types not included in the vaccine.

According to Carolyn Jacobson, director of CLUW’s Cervical Cancer Works program, unions are uniquely positioned to help educate women about these cervical cancer prevention tools.

“Unions represent 6.5 million women, and they have in place outstanding systems for communicating with these women about important issues such as cervical cancer prevention,” said Jacobson. “While Cervical Cancer Prevention Works leads many communications efforts on this topic, the program can’t reach all women by itself. We need CLUW members and others to get involved and work with their unions to get this information out.” 

Jacobson noted that union organizations and members are increasingly spreading the word in creative ways. The Central Pennsylvania CLUW Chapter, for example, recently sponsored a mother-daughter luncheon in Harrisburg, Pa., to educate multiple generations of women about how to protect themselves from cervical cancer. More than 60 people attended the event, led by Robin Pace, board member of CLUW’s sister organization, Tamika & Friends, Inc., ( a national nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about cervical cancer and HPV.

The luncheon’s format was modeled after Tamika & Friends’ signature “House Party of fiVe” events, intimate gathers that mix a party atmosphere with education so that women feel comfortable talking frankly about sensitive topics related to their reproductive health.

“When someone is interested in hosting their own House Party of Five event, they are encouraged to invite at least five friends over for the afternoon or evening,” said Ms. Pace. “The host chooses the party theme right for her friends. For some friends it’s poetry, for others karaoke, and for some friends risqué party games are the draw. Whatever the theme, no one feels lectured.” A highlight of the Harrisburg event was a lively game of “HPV Bingo,” also adapted from Tamika & Friends.

Carla Insinga, director of organizing for AFSCME Council 13 in Harrisburg, and key organizer of the event, said, “There are so many opportunities for union women to use our organizing skills – and creativity – to educate women about this important topic in ways that will resonate.” One idea, Insinga suggested, would be to target university students for a similar intergenerational event, since many union members live in communities that have colleges and universities.

For those interested in holding an educational event regarding cervical cancer prevention, CLUW can connect them to speakers, as well as to resources for content and materials. One such tool is a DVD ( featuring cervical cancer survivors Tamika Felder, founder of Tamika & Friends, and fellow union member Christine Baze, a musician and founder of the nonprofit organization, The Yellow Umbrella (, who talk about their personal stories battling this disease.

Another resource is the Pearl of Wisdom Campaign to Prevent Cervical Cancer (, a global effort to prevent cervical cancer, which is led in the U.S. by Tamika & Friends. The campaign encourages women to “wear and share” a Pearl of Wisdom about cervical cancer prevention. Pearl of Wisdom pins are available for purchase on the campaign’s website, with all proceeds benefiting cervical cancer prevention activities in the U.S. Pearls can also be shared “virtually,” through e-cards and web buttons that can be posted on Facebook and other personal web pages.

In September, Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month, the Pearl of Wisdom campaign launched a promotion to encourage women to wear a Pearl of Wisdom and submit photos of themselves wearing their pearls to the campaign, which will post it on its website. After October 31, the campaign will randomly select entrants to win an assortment of prizes. More information is available at .

AFSCME District Council 13 meeting planner Diann Albright used the campaign’s Pearl of Wisdom pins to reach out to the women gathered at her daughter’s bridal shower. She gave each of them a pin and requested that, in addition to toasting the bride and groom at the wedding, they share cervical cancer prevention information with other guests.

“The ways to educate women about cervical cancer prevention are limited only by our creativity,” said Jacobson.

For more information about Cervical Cancer Prevention Works or for tips on hosting your own cervical cancer awareness event, contact Carolyn Jacobson at or 202-508-6901.


Jun 17, 2009

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