A Battle for the Neighborhood: The 1917 Philadelphia Sugar Strike and Food Boycott
Haverford College. Department of History
Place of Publication
Table of Contents
On February 21, 1917, a group of 40 Eastern European housewives marched in protest down to the Franklin sugar refinery in South Philadelphia. Shouting, “We want food!” the women had come to join the picket line where their husbands and sons stood, on strike from the city’s three sugar refineries. Demanding a living wage and shorter hours, thousands of Polish and Lithuanian workers had walked out three weeks prior and joined the ranks of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical socialist union. The spirit of protest soon rippled out into the surrounding neighborhood, when a group of working-class Jewish women announced the start of their own “strike”: a boycott on basic foodstuffs, whose prices had begun to rise since the beginning of World War I. For the following weeks, they rioted in the market streets of their immigrant neighborhood, toppling pushcarts, breaking shop windows, and pouring kerosene over boycotted foods. This thesis uses the 1917 South Philadelphia sugar strike and food boycott as a lens to understand the theories and techniques of urban immigrant organizing in World War I era Philadelphia. I argue that immigrant sugar strikers and food boycotters based their protest on a broad theory of labor which bridged every realm of life, in which both the domestic and industrial spheres afforded the laborer workplace rights. The protestors practiced a hybrid form of protest which was based in a place-based familiarity with the local geography of their neighborhood, ethnic social networks, and American socialist labor organizing traditions. Central to their community ties was food, which held importance in immigrant culture and the local economy, but also whose production (particularly in the case of sugar refining) was rooted in an extractive relationship between the refineries and their surrounding community. The strike and boycott represented a battle for control of the neighborhood, one combatant fighting for localized economic and social reproduction, and the other for international wartime and Progressive-era capitalist interests.