Fish Strike

Strikes. New York’s had a few. And maybe never so many as during the 1930s. It seems as if every industry had a strike, judging from New York Police Department and Mayoral records. The NYPD Deputy Chief Inspector developed a list of the most important strikes between 1928 and 1937, inclusive. There was the paper-box strike, the Eagle pencil strike, the clothing salesmen strike, the Fur Workers, the Bee Line Bus workers (on multiple occasions), the Dugan Brothers Chauffeurs, the Cushman Bakery workers and the Building Services workers (requiring the deployment of 2,064 NYPD personnel—a record number) among others. All were related to fair wages and working conditions.

South Street Fish Markets, ca, 1938. Clifford Sutcliffe, WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Another interesting strike came to light in reviewing records about markets in the collection of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia: the Fish Strike of 1934. Mayor LaGuardia was no stranger to food strikes. He must have been aware of the 1910 actions by Lower East Side housewives over the price and quality of meat. And, as a member of Congress in 1923, he vigorously supported the strike over the exorbitant price of meat. It began in East Harlem and spread throughout the City. However, the strikers in those instances were consumers. The fish strike was all about the sellers. Not for the first time. According to a September 1946 New Yorker article the first strike in the City occurred in 1741 and involved food. A group of bakers refused to ply their trade unless they were paid more. Taken to court, they were convicted but given a suspended sentence so they would resume baking bread and the City avoided a bread shortage.

Actually, better to call it fish strikes as there seemed to be rolling events roiling the waters around the Fulton Fish Market throughout 1934. In March, 1934 an incident imperiled the making of a Passover holiday staple: gefilte fish. Demanding the right to collective bargaining, retail fish dealers went on strike. Supplies of whitefish, perch, etc. quickly dried up. The Jewish Daily Bulletin reported that the strike ended at a raucous meeting between the wholesalers and retailers that resulted in an agreement reducing the price of such fish during the Passover holiday. And then, things apparently simmered down. The first mention of possible trouble in the LaGuardia Departmental Correspondence Files is a brief letter dated August 15, 1934, from the Acting Commissioner of the Department of Public Markets advising the mayor that the fish retailers and wholesalers differences had been settled. But that was not to be.

Letter to Mayor LaGuardia from William Fellowes Morgan, Jr., Commissioner of the Department of Public Markets, Weights and Measures, Oct. 16, 1934. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Department of Public Markets, Weights and Measures was originally created by Mayor John Hylan in 1917 to monitor the price of food and ensure that scales used in retail markets were accurate. LaGuardia announced the appointment of Commissioner William Fellowes Morgan, Jr. at the annual meeting of the National Association of Butter and Egg Distributors, held at the Hotel Pennsylvania in January, 1934. LaGuardia’s announcement was met with great applause and he promised the new commissioner would root out racketeering in the City’s food markets.

The seventh Commissioner of the Department of Public Markets, Morgan knew quite a bit about seafood, having been the President of the Middle Atlantic Oyster Fisheries and head of the National Fisheries Association. This background was used against him by the United Retail Fish Dealers Association during the fish strike who charged him with drawing a “red herring to obscure the real issues and to stifle the heart rending cries of thousands of retail fish dealers,” and claimed that “he puts his personal interests in the fish business first and the public interest last…” This must have been a bitter charge because Morgan had fought against racketeering at the Fulton Fish Market, going so far as testifying before the Samuel Seabury Commission investigating corruption in the City.

Fish Peddler, ca. 1937. WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

There were characters aplenty involved in the fish strikes—the Mayor, the Commissioner of Public Markets, the fresh water fish wholesalers, the retail fish sellers, fish peddlers, alleged gangsters, communists, you name it. The 1934 fish strikes had it all. It wasn’t a full strike-nothing like the general strike for the 8-hour day or 1909 shirtwaist strike for better conditions. And, not all fish sales were included—mostly it was just the sellers of bony fresh water fish specimens comprising the genus Osteichthyes. The salt water guys continued to buy and sell.

On October 15, 1934, 500 fish dealers who bought seafood from wholesalers and resold it to retail stores closed their businesses, depriving approximately 2,000 stores, and their customers, of fish. Sal Wolpow who headed the strike committee gave a rousing quote to the New York Herald Tribune, “We started a strike and we’re going through with it. Under no condition will you go back to your business unless we are guaranteed enough to meet our bills. We are fighting for the right to support our families. I challenge the Commissioner to a public hearing. Let the people know the truth about our cause.”

United Retail Fish Dealers Assoc. letter of demands, Oct. 16, 1934. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

United Retail Fish Dealers Assoc. letter of demands, Oct. 16, 1934. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

On site at the Fulton Fish Market, Commissioner Morgan contacted the Police Commissioner and asked for NYPD protection for the retailers and the Italian fish dealers who wanted to buy directly from the wholesalers.

Memo to Mayor LaGuardia from secretary L.B. Dunham, Oct. 16, 1934. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

According to a memo from L. B. Dunham, Secretary to the Mayor, the Commissioner of the Department of Public Markets, Weights and Measures phoned in a report that the “strike was largely under the domination of a radical group” that demanded a fixed price for fish and that their organization should have the exclusive right to sell fish. Morgan followed the phone call with a letter describing the demands: a fixed price for fish (which he pooh-poohed); a ban on fish sales to pushcart peddlers; and that non-members of the retailers association be charged a higher price for wholesale fish. Further, he reported that those on strike were the Jewish Fish Dealers and that the Italian Fish Dealers had broken from the group.

Deposition of Daniel Remson, retail fish merchant. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Two depositions taken that day indicate the seriousness of the strike.

In one, a retail fish merchant who went to the docks at 5:10 a.m. to collect the day’s supply of fish only to have tires on his truck slashed, despite paying $2 per week for its “care and upkeep” while at the fish market. He consulted with the president of the Mutual Fish Dealers, of which he was a member, and was informed that “their members could buy fish as they had nothing to do with the strikers, and were not in favor of the strike.” The fishmonger then purchased 1,000 pounds of fish and headed to his store. “Later a Studebaker approached and eight tough looking men got out” and told him “that was a pretty raw deal which he had received this morning and there was no need to get “hot” about it. Deponent felt very angry about the way in which he had been treated. The men stated that they were advising him in a nice way, that they would make up the damage done to his truck but also advised him to take the fish back until the strike was over….He took the fish back to the market. Wholesaler was very peeved because deponent returned the fish.”

In the other deposition, the owner of eight fish stores claimed he was forced to keep his businesses closed because “Sol Wolpole (sic) has united about 85% of the retail fish dealers and intimated them into joining up with his Communist ideas….I am keeping my stores closed because Wolpole and his organization will picket my stores. If I keep open they will harm my business and divert it to other directions....The Walpole followers demand that the market set one price instead of fluctuating it according to the laws of supply and demand. This, to my mind, is a principal (sic) of Communism which I will never adhere to….

The fish suppliers walk-out lasted seven days, from October 15 to October 23, 1934. It paused, according to the New York Times, when the parties agreed to a 30-day truce during which, Major Benjamin Namm, the Mayor’s “peace representative in the fresh water fish industry” would negotiate a permanent settlement, with the assistance of the American Arbitration Association.

Telegram to Mayor LaGuardia from the United Retail Fish Dealers Assoc. Oct. 16, 1934. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Telegram to Mayor LaGuardia from the United Retail Fish Dealers Assoc. Oct. 16, 1934. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Major Namm soldiered on. In a November 7th memo, Lester Stone, Secretary to the Mayor, reported that the Major thought the Fresh Water Fish controversy was coming to a successful conclusion. Still on the table was the retailers desire to “fix” the price of fish. Finally, on November 13th agreements were made between the salt water wholesalers, the fresh water wholesalers and retailers. In his letter to the Mayor that week, Commissioner Morgan described how the Department of Public Markets would be helpful in carrying out the agreement. Inspectors would monitor the market to ensure that wholesalers only sold fish to licensed retail peddlers. No additional fish pushcart licenses would be issued by the Department. The Fulton Fish Market scales were to be tested to ensure “honest weights”. And the public affairs bureau at the Department would promote the consumption of fish in its regular radio broadcasts. He noted that an impartial arbitrator would settle issues among the parties going forward and worried that the Industry might refuse to abide by the ruling of the impartial arbitrator.

That was not the end. On November 23, the United Retail Fish Dealers letter to the Mayor appropriately began, “We regret to have to annoy you again in as much as we feel we have already imposed upon your good nature in the past, but unfortunately the serious condition in which the retail fish dealers find themselves is compelling us to lay our grievances again before you, knowing that any possible relief of which the City is capable of will be given to us.” The complaint: unlicensed fish peddlers.

Fish vendor, August 17, 1937. Ezzes, WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Major Namm was not called back into service. Instead, City Hall referred the matter to Commissioner Morgan. In his response, Morgan referred to the clause in the agreement that no fish was to be sold to unlicensed peddlers and reported that the departmental inspectors were reporting if the agreement wasn’t being followed. But, he wrote, “This will not cover the entire situation, however, as a considerable amount of fish is trucked from Fulton Market and then distributed to unlicensed peddlers uptown.” By whom, you might wonder? Possibly the fish suppliers themselves.

Thus ended the Fish Strikes of 1934.