Helen Winter, CPUSA leader, labor and peace activist

BY:Communist Party USA| March 15, 2022
Helen Winter, CPUSA leader, labor and peace activist


In 1908, as the first decade of the 20th century was coming to a close, Helen Winter was born in Seattle, Washington. Her parents, Alfred Wagenknecht and Hortense Allison, as leaders of the Washington State Socialist Party, no doubt hoped that their daughters would grow up to understand and fully participate in the ongoing struggles for a more just world — struggles to which they had dedicated their lives. Helen and her sisters did not disappoint them.

The Wagenknechts moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when Helen was five years old. At a tender age she participated in a socialist Sunday school, helped mail issues of the Ohio Socialist, and visited her father in the Canton, Ohio, workhouse where he had been imprisoned for his opposition to the First World War.

Helen’s first involvement in labor activity came when she and her father traveled to Passaic, New Jersey, to help with a textile workers strike. Her father was the relief organizer, and Helen spent the summer of 1926 working in the union’s relief office, helping the striking families secure food, car fare, and other necessities. She picketed alongside the workers and helped organize recreational and athletic programs for the children of the strikers.

At age 15, Helen joined the Young Communist League and shortly after that, the Communist Party.

Helen met Carl in Cleveland when she was a senior in high school and he was a college student at Western Reserve University. Their relationship, forged in their mutual love and respect for each other and their commitment to revolutionary struggle, was to endure through six decades, ending only with Carl’s death in 1991.

Pro-labor, anti-fascist

Helen continued her involvement with labor when she and Carl went to New York City in the late twenties. Helen worked in the office of the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL). She helped organize office workers for TUUL and was present at the founding convention in Philadelphia of the United Office and Professional Workers (now OPEIU). A lifelong passion for the rights of women was aroused by her involvement in such struggles on behalf of working women.

During the height of the Depression, Helen went to work in the business office of the Daily Worker. She also became a section organizer for the needle trades, doing both office and picket duty as required. Meanwhile, Carl took over the leadership of the Unemployed Councils for New York, Thus, together the Winters spent the early 1930s providing assistance to both struggling workers and their unemployed brethren.

As fascism reared its ugly head in the mid-1930s, Helen and Carl went oversees to assist in the struggles against this ominous global threat. Upon their return home, the Winters worked diligently on behalf of the Spanish Republicans who were battling Franco and his fascist allies. They supported the American volunteers who formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and fought with the anti-Franco forces. During the 1940s, Helen and Carl continued their activist work in Cleveland and Minneapolis, including a run by Helen for a seat on the seven-person Minneapolis Library Board. Under the slogan “Books not Bullets,” she was among the 14 candidates who made it through the primaries.

The 1940s saw the Winters on the move once again, this time to Los Angeles where in 1942 their daughter Michele was born. When Michele was three years old the family came to Detroit where they were to remain for the next 20 years.

The little red blanket

When McCarthyism hit the country with all its fury, both Carl and Helen were swept up in its vicious whirlwind. Carl was convicted under the Smith Act for “conspiring to teach and advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence” and was sentenced to five years in prison. Even as he was serving his term, Helen was similarly charged. At one point the judge who was hearing her case ordered Helen into court, although she was suffering from phlebitis and had to be brought into the courtroom on a stretcher. Even the red blanket which the ambulance drivers had placed over Helen became an issue. Convinced that it represented a subversive political statement, the judge ordered it removed and declared the trial in recess. Helen’s conviction was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and became one of the cases by which the Smith Act was finally declared unconstitutional and was overturned.

In the dark days of the 1950s, to help protect those under attack, Helen worked with the Smith Act Families Committee, which gave mutual support and attention to their needs. The Committee was also a vehicle by which funds were raised so that family members could visit their imprisoned loved ones. The Children’s Peace Club was also formed at that time for the Smith Act children to assure that they would not feel alone and would find strength through unity with each other. “As a child, I don’t think I was actually aware that an organization had been formed,” daughter Michele recollected, “I just remember how much fun we all had being together.”

In the late 1950s, Helen helped found Global Books, a Communist bookstore in Detroit that offered books on labor and African American history, women’s struggles, and works by Marx, Engels, and Lenin. The public forums sponsored by Global Books were a demonstration of First Amendment rights during a time of intimidation and fear. During this time, Helen was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee as they tried to label Global Books an agent of a foreign power.

The Winters went to New York in 1965 so they could undertake political activities on a national level. Carl served as editor of the Weekly Worker (now People’s World), and Helen was involved with organizational work and peace activities, including serving as one of the founding members of the U.S. Peace Council. In her role as International Affairs Secretary for the Communist Party, Helen was recognized around the world for her tireless work for international working-class solidarity and world peace.

Helen returned to Detroit where she lived and remained active until her death on December 13, 2001.

Helen was known for her devotion to the socialist cause as well as her seriousness, incisive analysis, attention to organizational detail, and punctuality (being late to a meeting was not an option for her). A friend once noted: “Listen to Helen when she says something. Like a skilled surgeon she cuts through to the heart of the matter. Attending meetings with Helen has been an endless source of pleasure.” With warmth and love, she nurtured others’ political growth, often sending people leftist reading materials and encouraging them to take a “step in the left direction.”

This biography is based on a program book printed for Helen’s 85th birthday celebration in 1993.
Images:  Staffing Global Books in Detroit; On the phone; Carl, Michele, and Helen Winter, Daily Worker, Nov. 7, 1949, People’s World Archive; Helen at 85  years. All photos courtesy of Helen’s daughter Michele unless otherwise noted.


    The Communist Party USA is a  revolutionary working-class  political party founded in 1919 in Chicago, IL. The Communist Party stands for the interests of the American working class and the American people. It stands for our interests in both the present and the future. Solidarity with workers of other countries is also part of our work. We work in coalition with the labor movement, the peace movement, the student movement, organizations fighting for equality and social justice, the environmental movement, immigrants rights groups and the health care for all campaign. But to win a better life for working families, we believe that we must go further. We believe that the American people can replace capitalism with a system that puts people before profit — socialism. We are rooted in our country's revolutionary history and its struggles for democracy. We call for "Bill of Rights" socialism, guaranteeing full individual freedoms.

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