Women’s History Month
Velma Hopkins helped write the book on organizing

Article Published on March 13, 2023

This month, we celebrate Women’s History Month by highlighting those whose efforts have done so much to shape the landscape of labor today. One such leader is Velma Hopkins, who saw the power of developing leaders in the workplace.

Twenty years before the civil rights movement gained momentum, workers in Winston-Salem, NC, were fighting for their rights through Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers-CIO.

Local 22 was an interracial union of workers and their supporters who demanded better treatment, wages, and benefits from tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds. The union, led primarily by black women, was already pushing the boundaries of economic, racial, and gender equality in the workplace.

In 1943, the death of a Reynolds worker sparked a 38-day strike for better working conditions, pay, and equal rights. The action—10,000 strong— was led by Hopkins and others who saw an opportunity to better their lives.

Early on, Hopkins saw the value of investing in shop stewards as union leaders.

“Shop stewards were the most important people in the plant,” she said. “They were the natural leaders, people who would take up money for flowers if someone died or would talk to the foreman even before we had a union.”

The union structure reinforced the capabilities of such workers. “We had training classes for shop stewards: What to do, how to do it,” Hopkins said. The shop stewards transformed the traditional paternalism at the factory into a system of benefits and responsibilities. They made collective bargaining a bill of rights.

“I know my limitations, and I surround myself with people who I can designate to be sure it’s carried out. If you can’t do that, you’re not an organizer.” – Velma Hopkins