When 20,000 textile workers went on strike in the 1928 New Bedford Textile Workers Strike, 18-year-old factory worker Eulalia “Eula” Mendes (1910-2004) became a leader in her mill and community by encouraging Portuguese industrial migrant workers to participate in the strike. Later, she traveled nationwide to support other fights for justice and equality.
Eula left Portugal with her working-class family in 1912 and settled in New Bedford, a textile city with a large Portuguese-speaking community. At the young age of 14, Eula became her family’s primary breadwinner as a bobbin worker in a textile factory. In 1928, when the city’s textile workers went on strike in opposition to a 10% wage cut planned by the factory owners, Eula began attending meetings run by regional and national labor organizers.
She became a leader at her mill and in her community by promoting Portuguese worker participation in the strike. Eula translated the speeches of labor leaders into Portuguese and gave speeches herself. She became an organizer for the communist-influenced Textile Mill Committee (TMC), which demanded a wage increase, a 40-hour workweek, and an end to child labor. Eventually, Eula became a member of the TMC’s executive committee serving in a leadership role as secretary.
The TMC organized thousands of workers into pickets, rallies, and parades that attracted the attention of law enforcement and city officials. The National Guard and local police used force and arrested many strikers, including Eula. She noted that she “was arrested a number of times... We sometimes stayed [in jail] for just a few hours, sometimes overnight or sometimes even days or weeks, but we were usually let out on bail. And a few days later maybe we were arrested again.”
After six months, the strikers accepted a smaller pay cut and returned to work. For Eula, the 1928 strike sparked a life of union organizing. She traveled nationwide with the International Ladies Garment Workers and other unions to support other uprisings in the fight for justice and equality. Eula’s activism continued with her Communist Party affiliation in New Bedford and the region, and she refused to sign a Loyalty Pledge to promise that she was not a Communist.
The strike did not accomplish all the goals the TMC hoped for, but it did change the relationship between textile workers and mill owners in the city and New England for decades to come. After years of being ignored by the established mill craft unions, ethnic communities found a voice through the TMC and developed a new interest in unions, which encouraged them to come together to advocate for greater representation.