Sidney Lens papers




Chicago History Museum


68.0 Linear feet




Lens, Sidney

Biographical note

Sidney Lens, author and labor leader, was born Sidney Okun on Jan. 28,1912, in Newark, New Jersey, the son of Charles and Sophie Okun, Russian Jews who reached the United States in 1907.

It was not until 1934, when he formally joined the Trotskyites (stressing in his autobiography that it was an intellectual rather than an emotional decision) that Lens began organizing department store unions in New York. In August of 1936, as a member of the Revolutionary Workers’ League, Lens went to Chicago and led a crowd of 2000 that disrupted a Chicago City Council meeting to demand reinstatement of city cash benefits to the unemployed. The tactic worked, and Lens made Chicago his base as, during the years immediately following, he traveled to Detroit, New York, and Washington, D.C., organizing walkouts, sit-ins, and new unions.

In 1941 Lens undertook organizing efforts among fellow workers at the Hillman’s grocery chain. In the following months he managed to depose Max Caldwell, the reputed racketeer leader of Hillman’s Local 1248 of the AFL’s Retail Clerk’s International Protective Association, and regrouped the workers into the United Grocery and Produce Employees Union, Local 329 of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (CIO). Hillman’s refusal to recognize the new union resulted in an unsuccessful six-week strike, but victory crowned Lens’ efforts the following year when Local 329 won an election ordered by the National Labor Relations Board. In 1946 Lens led Local 329 out of the CIO and into the AFL’s Building Service Employees International Union, which had a firmer footing in Chicago’s State Street retail establishments. In the next few years Lens widened his organizing efforts; on behalf of Local 329 (known from 1946/47 as the United Service Employees Union) at Mandel Brothers and Carson, Pirie, Scott; for fellow BSEIA Local 291 at Goldblatt Brothers; and for BSEIU Local 372 at Wieboldt’s. Lens served as director of Local 329 until 1966, and remained active in union leadership capacities through the 1970s.

Scope and Contents note

The papers document s Lens' varied career as a union organizer, political candidate, peace activist, author, lecturer, and world traveler. It is noteworthy that Lens was both a prolific writer and an indefatigable organizer, and therefore much of the documentation in these files is not only about Lens, but by him as well. Scores of union newsletters circulated in Chciago locals in the 1940s and 1950s were produced by Lens in the heat of organizational drives and strikes. The collection contains a continuous run of correspondence (both incoming and outgoing) arranged chronologically, revealing Lens’ activist career of a half-century; manuscript drafts of books and articles (published and unpublished) show Lens’ efforts to influence national public opinion. In addition to these files generated by, and directly pertinent to, Lens’ public activities and pronouncements, the collection contains personal memorabilia, financial records, and Lens' research files on domestic topics and foreign nations.

Custodial History note

Gift of Sidney Lens and of his wife Shirley Lens (1986.0436 and earlier).

Processing Information note

This collection was surveyed as part of the Black Metropolis Research Consortium's Survey Initiative on 2010 October 6 by Andrew Steadham.