In July of 1928 the Communist Party in the United States opened a public cafeteria on the ground floor of their headquarters in New York City, home also to The Daily Worker. The headquarters, known as the Workers’ Centre, was at 26-28 Union Square East and also contained a cooperative barber shop in which the barbers did not accept tips.
The restaurant was called Proletcos Cooperative Cafeteria. Proletcos was said to be a name created by a garment worker who combined the first two syllables of PROLETarian with the CO of cooperative, then added an S.
It’s not surprising that Communists would select a cafeteria as their preferred format for a restaurant. There is something socialistic about cafeterias, with their self-service and no-tipping customs. They were widely adopted in industrial plants and among working women’s organizations of the 1890s. Two home economists created a chain of cooperative cafeterias in NYC in 1920, called Our Cooperative Cafeterias, which dispersed an annual rebate to customers who were members. Evidently it was unrelated to the Communists’ project. Proletcos, whose prices were about average for a cafeteria, gave a 10% discount to its 600 shareholders. Its workers were guaranteed an 8-hour day and good working conditions.
Proletcos was enlarged in November of 1928 and was able to serve nearly 6,000 meals a day. Artist Hugo Gellert, a lifelong Marxist and co-founder of The New Masses magazine, created a mural for the expanded and refurbished restaurant in which sturdy workers and Communist heros such as Sacco and Vanzetti, John Reed, and Vladimir Lenin, all 10 feet tall, loomed over the dining room (pictured). According to a story in the New Yorker, the cafeteria was quite up to date, with tile floors, brass railings, and modern light fixtures.
The cafeteria had a short life lasting only a couple of years in which it served workers, many of them from the garment district, along with students who liked to hang out, drink coffee, and discuss the issues of the times. It evidently came to an end in 1930 when the CP moved its headquarters from Union Square to East 13th Street.
© Jan Whitaker, 2010