1901 Workers' Strike

Tampa's First General Strike

Kidnapping, Threats, and the Defeat of La Resistencia

The struggle between factory owners and factory workers was constant in the early 20th century. In Tampa, immigrant workers were educated through lectores, or readers in their factory, and sought to gain more leverage and recognition by joining together and creating unions.

Of these, La Sociedad de Torcedores de Tampa y Sus Cercanias (The Society of Cigar Rollers of Tampa and its proximities) was one of the two largest, alongside the Cigar Makers International Union. La Sociedea de Torcedores was more commonly called La Resistencia, for their goal was to resist the exploitation of labor. They had waged a successful strike in 1889 and in May 1901, but in June 1901, a crisis was unfolded that would destroy the union altogether.

In Tampa, as elsewhere, factory owners wanted to curb the growing power of the unions. In 1901, cigar manufacturers flirted with the idea of opening branch factories in Jacksonville and Pensacola, beyond the reaches of the young union. According to historian Gary Mormino, the union saw this as “an attempt to maintain an open shop policy and struck to force a closing of these operations, considering unjustified to the Tampa workers”.

On July 22, 1901, the union once again used its ultimate weapon: the strike. They demanded that the Cuesta and Rey factory close its Jacksonville factory and fire workers from The International Cigar Makers Union, as they had refused to go alongside the strike with La Resistencia. But manufacturers had stocked up with extra goods, and were willing to wait until La Resistencia and the International had patched up their differences. The strike was in full effect by July 26.

Almost all factories in Tampa were forced to shut down, with only three open, most notably the Cuesta-Rey factory on 2501 North Howard Avenue, staffed solely by the CMIU. La Resistencia asked the city to close illegal gambling houses (so as to keep their men from wasting their money), and they opened soup houses to feed their members. But the union suffered from internal revolt, which caused citizens of Tampa to take matters into their own hands.

The Tampa Tribune’s editor suggested on August 6 that strategic raids on Ybor hangouts by vigilantes could end the strike. A citizen’s committee was formed, and on August 5, thirteen union leaders were kidnapped by policemen working for the committee. They were put on a boat, told never to return under penalty of death, and sent to Honduras.

La Resistencia was furious, but did not resort to violence, for it was breaking at the seams. Public opinion had turned against them, and no other unions would answer their pleads for aid. Factory owners began supplying workers from elsewhere, and finally, four months after it begun, the strike ended on November 23. La Resistencia ceased to exist in 1901, after three eventful years. But the death of La Resistencia fueled the growth of the International Cigar Makers Union, and the struggle between factory owner and factory worker would continue.