The ongoing resurgence of the American labor movement has brought the fight for workers’ rights back to the forefront of our nation’s consciousness. From the seemingly unstoppable tide of unionization at Starbucks coffee shops, to the stunning victory of the grassroots, independent Amazon Labor Union on Staten Island, it is clear that we are seeing an end to the uneasy ceasefire between capital and labor that was established after Reagan’s brutal crushing of the air traffic controller strike in 1981 that saw more than 11,000 workers fired and banned from future federal jobs.
“War Stories,” a play directed by Christina Roussos and written by Marthe Rachel Gold, was initially set to premiere prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. It now finds itself arriving to New York’s non-profit theater The Tank amid the triumphant return of labor militancy. Though the people behind the show were very excited to finally showcase their labor of love that has spanned for two years longer than intended, its late arrival is fortunate due to the show’s setting — the union movement during World War II.
The story focuses on Ruth, played by Sophie DeLeo, a young and passionate Jewish student who spends more time on picket lines singing labor hymns than in the study hall. The show opens with Ruth providing a rousing rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid” to striking restaurant workers. Signs that read “A Fair Day’s Wage for a Fair Day’s Work” and the pleas of workers succeed at dissuading a few diners from entering, though others don’t heed their calls for solidarity, justifying their crossing of the picket line with compliments of the food provided by the establishment.
Nat Cohen, a Trotskyist played by J. Ryan, immediately notices the firebrand singer and decides to ask her out. Ruth agrees and the two begin a fling, unaware that the war drums sounding across Europe will soon arrive on American shores. Nat, a pacifist, passionately defends his anti-war stance, even though he acknowledges the threat that Hitler presents to his and Ruth’s people. He argues that war can never be justified as it only inevitably leads to more war, regardless of the titles, such as “The War to End All Wars,” that the capitalist profiteers aim to assign them.
Ruth finds herself at odds with Nat’s unflinching adherence to pacifism and general reluctance to budge on any matter. Nat claims that he is open to Ruth influencing him but it is clear through his actions that he intends it to be a one-way street in her direction. Their relationship goes through further difficulty as the war eventually reaches America with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Nate’s beliefs, defiant against the all-encompassing call to arms that swept our nation into the war effort, lands him in trouble with Ruth’s family and threatens their relationship.
Ruth finds work as a singer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, providing a performance of Joe Glazer’s “The Mill Was Made of Marble” to the striking garment workers gathered in the auditorium. The crowd is encouraged by Ruth to join along in the song’s chorus:
And the mill was made out of marble
The machines were made out gold
And nobody ever grew tired
And nobody ever grew old
Following this, she is joined by the union’s president and an impassioned orator in a rendition of labor’s ultimate anthem — “Solidarity Forever.” Ruth maintains her commitment to the cause of labor, even as her relationship with Nat falters under the weight of a world consumed in the fires of war.
Though the play’s main focus is on the life of Ruth, a fictionalized depiction of the playwright’s mother, it is impossible to separate her story from that of the labor movement at large. The period during the war saw many challenges for organized labor. The left-leaning factions of labor found themselves flip-flopping on their stance towards the war due to Stalin’s ever-shifting relationship with Hitler. Once German soldiers crossed into Soviet territory, the party line was strictly pro-war. Leftists non-aligned with Stalin, including Nat, found themselves at odds with other communists and sympathizers. Additionally, though Roosevelt was supported by the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the two largest labor federations, the most radical agitators viewed the New Deal as nothing more than makeup to cover up the cruelties of capitalism — a meager bandage for a limb that they believed was worthy of amputation.
The war provided justification for the curbing of workers’ rights. Bosses could frame strikes as sabotage against the war effort and claim that union agitation was all in service of the Axis. The Soviet Union, adopted as a boogeyman within the United States upon its founding, proved to be an awkward ally for a nation that was consumed only a short time before by the Red Scare. Labor leaders, specifically the more militant ones, were defamed as Bolsheviks and Reds in order to turn patriotic Americans against the cause of unions. The war’s end quickly revealed that there would be no lasting peace or cooperation between the two diametrically opposed powers in the new world order that was forged at the Potsdam Conference.
The death of Roosevelt in 1945 and Truman’s ascension to the White House preceded the passing of the Taft-Hartley Act, a bill that significantly amended 1935’s National Labor Relations Act. The amendments curtailed the rights of organized labor, handing more power back to the bosses, and enabled states to pass the dreaded “right-to-work” laws that to this day negatively impact workers’ rights in the states where they are on the books. An alliance of Republicans and conservative, anti-New Deal Democrats overrode Truman’s veto to pass the bill.
“War Stories” does a fantastic job of showcasing this tumultuous period in labor history by allowing the story of individuals to inform it. Ruth and Nat, alongside the rest of the ensemble, serve as a reminder that history is not simply words in a book or tales that are passively retold, but the blood, sweat and tears of living, breathing people and the trials they faced. As the lyric from Ralph Chaplin’s “Solidarity Forever” reminds us: “What force on Earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one? But the union makes us strong.”
The union keeps Ruth strong, empowering her and, in turn, is empowered by her own strength in the face of hardship. Unions are not just their leaders or the labor heros who are still honored and celebrated to this day. Unions are the rank-and-file members, those standing on the picket line and facing down the police and other servants of the bosses. Unfortunately, women often found themselves fighting the unions just as fiercely as their bosses to secure their rights as workers who would be viewed as equal to men.
Many working women were either banned from joining the ranks of major unions or found themselves relegated to trades that were considered appropriate for their sex. Women were asked to fill the industrial roles — think Rosie the Riveter — of the men who left them for the frontlines but were forced out once they returned. Organized labor was no stranger to the patriarchal nature of society that defined the 20th century and still reverberates in our present day. Ruth begins the play standing in solidarity on the picket line, embodying the ferocity that the depicted heroine of “Union Maid” presents in its lyrics — a woman unafraid of the gun thugs and proud to carry her union card. But even this song, no doubt written with good intentions, falls victim to the social norms of the day by encouraging women to marry a union man and to join the “ladies auxiliary.”
Ruth’s struggles mirror similar hardships that women within organized labor experienced in the past and still face on a daily basis. Some of labor’s most celebrated figures were women — Mother Jones, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Lucy Parsons to name a few — yet their struggles for equality show that even the progressive cause of labor has room to grow when it comes to sexism and any concerns related to sex and gender.
“War Stories” reminds us of these realities and reveals that our past is not too distant from our present. A recording of “Union Maid” from 1977 by the New Harmony Sisterhood Band provides additional lyrics to modernize Guthrie’s original song and serves to reiterate the demands of working women like Ruth all over the world:
We modern union maids are also not afraid
to walk the line, leave jobs behind, and we’re not just the ‘Ladies A’
We’ll fight for equal pay and we shall have our say
We’re workers too, the same as you, and fight the union way!
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